30 July 2007

Why 'obesity is contagious' is contagious.

Russell Roberts explains what the heck goes on with the whole 'obesity is contagious' news item, which has itself been spreading pretty infectiously:

You see, the more it's LIKE a virus, the more increasing obesity is like an epidemic rather than a failure of personal responsibility or merely a pleasant experience, say, of eating more ice cream and being a little less trim. The more it is like a virus, the less it is a personal choice, the more justified is government involvement on "public health" grounds.
A ha, as they say.

Related: earlier this month, Seattle's King County banned trans fats in restaurants, joining New York City, Philadelphia, Brookline, MA and Montgomery County, MD. California, which surprisingly did NOT lead the way this time, is catching up. Many national chains are also going trans-fat free, some in response to the bans, some who started reformulating several years ago to get ahead of the trend. Incidentally, I think I've tried several versions of Starbucks' trans-fat-free Maple Oat Nut scone (my favorite breakfast junk food), and it is not good, not good at all. They're going to have to do better. My grandparents routinely tell me that I don't know what real tomatoes (cucumbers, apples, corn, etc.) taste like, now that they're grown so efficiently for pest resistance and cross-country shipping. I will be saying this to my grandchildren about donuts, I suspect.

A worthy public service project

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the pointer to Biologists Helping Bookstores ("Reshelving pseudo-scientific nonsense since 2007"):

It is my mission to correctly re-shelve books to the appropriate section of the bookstore.

For example, "Darwin's Black Box", the famous pseudo-science book by the non-evolutionary non-scientist Michael Behe, should not be in the "Evolutionary Biology" section, but something more appropriate, such as "New Age", "Religion", "Christianity", or even "Fiction". You get the idea.

Although I am not, by training, a scientist, I nevertheless accept the author's invitation to join in on this potentially powerful campaign. Colorado bookstores, red alert! Another great candidate for recategorization: neuroscience books written by self-help authors.

The (Web) Search for Spock

An InformationWeek article describes Spock.com (currently in beta testing), which allows users to search for profiles compiled out of public information, vote on how accurate the information is, and manage the accuracy of their own profiles. The site is also running a contest (the 'Spock Challenge') to find solutions to one of its major problems, teaching a search algorithm how to correctly tag new information when people share the same name.

The site is currently by invite only, so while I'm waiting for mine, let me just say this: the creators claim that they named the site Spock for its consumer recognizability factor, and that it stands for Single Point of Contact and Knowledge. To which I say: Yeah, right. As a long-time Star Trek enthusiast, I'm comfortable admitting that I've had a crush on Mr. Spock since high school, and I find it hard to believe that the 'patron saint of computer science' had nothing to do with the naming of the company.

Will report back on Spock's search capabilities soon. In the meantime, here's my favorite sentence in the IW article:

"In the absence of privacy, control is the next best thing, and Spock stands out for giving its users a least a little say over how they and others get represented online."
Italics added -- I'm thinking the company could get this printed on a T-shirt, with an image of Spock looking severe.

27 July 2007

One of the few interesting things in Southern California that has not yet been turned into a theme park.

Hiked today with friend Leslie through Rustic Canyon, in the hills above L.A., to check out a WWII era commune hidden down in the bottom of the canyon. I will defer to this Derelict Urban Structures blog post for the detailed history, but to sum up, a wealthy heiress was persuaded by her fiance, a German Nazi official, to build a self-sufficient community that would survive a potential Nazi attack on America (after the inevitable victory in Europe, naturally). The commune cost about $4M to build and fortify, and featured buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Los Angeles, if you're going to do it at all, better to do it right, including trendy architecture.

We hiked up some paved and dirt roads until we found the first staircase leading steeply down to the canyon floor. The first building we encountered was the old concrete generator house, now artfully decorated by layers of graffiti. The effect was pretty cool, but it was exactly the kind of place I wouldn't want to be after dark, when it must surely serve as a hangout for tougher types than me.

We came upon a burnt-out and twisted steel building which probably had some living quarters (and a bathroom), and then a steel and wood barn-type building, fenced off and quite unsafe looking. Most of the living areas were probably wood structures, destroyed by fires; at least, we didn't see any foundations, etc. The path was paved with asphalt at one point and was mostly still intact, though overgrown with lots of poison oak. The road and staircase network is extensive (it was designed for security patrols), but we successfully found the main road/path leading back up to the massive metal and stone gates fronting onto the main canyon road. What a good way of staying inconspicuous! We also saw a concrete cistern and another round steel structure, maybe for storing gas?

The group was shut down after about a year, after reports of gunfire and military drills. (An art professor later bought the land to use as a commune for artists, until it was gutted by fire in the 70's.) It was a fantastic hike, more interesting than most. Also, it reminded me of hiking in the Colorado mountains, except that every so often we'd feel a sea breeze, and catch a view of the beach between the hills. A few questions I have about the commune:

1. Were these people Nazi sympathizers, waiting for the liberation of America? Or were they simply survivalists, believing that WWII would eventually reach America, and hoping to avoid the chaos?

2. Were they trying to fly under the radar, or were they open about their plans? The big gate and the military drills would seem to give it away a bit.

3. How many people lived there? The canyon is totally dry except during spring, and many buildings were probably destroyed in fires, so it's hard to know if we're talking about a handful, as some histories suggest, or up to forty families, as others claim?

24 July 2007

Autism: Probably not caused by vaccines, mercury, television, or unaffectionate mothers.

Via Nobel Intent, a group of autism researchers has developed a genetic model of autism that comes pretty close to predicting the incidence rates that we actually observe in reality. Many researchers have aspired to this and failed, using single-mode genetic models, but this new study finds that introducing a few very specific assumptions about the genetic character of autism helps:

1. Familial susceptibility to autism is a dominant trait, with offspring of autistic parents having a 50% chance of inheriting it. (Autism is known to be passed on from observably autistic parents.)

2. But, while almost all males who inherit the susceptibility for autism develop the disorder, only about 30% of females with this inheritance do. (Boys are much, much more likely to be autistic than girls, autistic parents or not.)

3. Mutations associated with susceptibility to autism are common in the general population. (Females are very likely to act as 'non-symptomatic' carriers, so when autistic children appear in families with no previous signs of autism, they will often be in sudden clusters (rather than being interspersed randomly). Older parents are more likely to have an autistic child, as older germ cells = higher mutation rate.)

Very interesting stuff, and beats the heck out of the timeworn but still common belief that autism is caused by childhood vaccines. For other hypothesized causes, see post title.

23 July 2007

Interlude on the beach

Yesterday my hosts and I went to the beach to watch a fire-spinning demonstration. We went around 6, unaware that once the day crowds leave, this particular beach becomes a gathering place for lots and lots of tough guys, along with their fancy cars and good-looking women. Our group spotted an unoccupied firepit and set up camp; immediately several rather intimidating delegates from the parking-lot-wide tailgate party advanced upon us, gesticulating wildly until they got into shouting range. 'That's our firepit,' they announced. 'But there was no one near it,' we said. The situation seemed tense, and some members of our group were in favor of moving on to a less controversial cooking spot, but through continued negotiations we agreed that our party would use the firepit for cooking until dark, at which point we would go looking for our fire-spinning friends, and the tailgate group would take over the area for their bonfire. Hurray for the non-zero-sum thinking displayed by my friend Leslie, the chief negotiator on our side!

Once these formalities were out of the way, we were besieged by all of the kids in the tailgate group, who wanted to know how come we were cooking in a firepit instead of on grills and portable deep fryers. They also wanted to look over our food supplies, inspect and eventually admire our attire, and show us their sand crabs in paper cups. After we finished up with our cooking, we approached the tailgaters to compliment their decorated cars and take our leave; they invited us to hang out at their bonfire and party with them. We had to regretfully decline, although Leslie handed out some business cards; the little girls in particular were sad to see us go. Overall it was a very pleasant beach picnic, although we never were able to successfully meet up with the fire-spinners.

20 July 2007

Hey, you can't say that on television!

In an op-ed Sunday, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker lists 'dangerous ideas,' ideas that seem to be widely perceived as too dangerous to even talk about. (HT: H&R.) A few of the taboo topics I found most interesting:

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

Pinker only offers two mechanisms by which certain ideas become 'too dangerous': slippery-slope thinking and us-them polarization. It seems to me that there must be some more interesting reasons why this happens around certain ideas -- maybe some evolutionary psychology is in order here? In fact, if your answer to the fourth question above is Yes, then a nice circularity emerges: our evolutionarily-designed moral feelings might very well dictate that certain moral questions are never to be considered or talked about. On the other hand, some of the taboo subjects seem to be loaded on a more obvious political basis -- there are perfectly understandable political reasons why no one wants to say that black men have higher testosterone levels than white men.

I think the perception that discussion of these ideas is widely condemned depends an awful lot on who you spend your time talking with. There are some people, mostly friends, to whom I wouldn't hesitate to pose any one of these questions, because interesting debate would ensue. There are some people, mostly family, in whose company I would never bring these subjects up, at all, ever, because for them it is never okay to talk about this stuff. However, I'm sometimes caught by surprise when I learn which group someone fits into -- I have family members, by all appearances quite conservative, who are more than willing to entertain some of these 'dangerous ideas' in a pretty matter-of-fact way, and I have friends who certainly seem to be socially progressive and scientifically minded, but who reject some of these possibilities out of hand, with a superciliously raised eyebrow.

Friday time-suck: tell me what you see.

Check out this incredibly cool blog post over at Neurophilosophy on how the brain interprets 'ambiguous' images -- images that are capable of more than one interpretation, and therefore cause the brain to flip-flop back and forth, perceptually. I could include here the mind-bending sample image, but wouldn't want to deprive you of the opportunity to read the whole thing.

Update: I just saw Voltaire in the Dali painting -- whoa!

17 July 2007

Che Guevara was a murderer and your t-shirt is not cool

The facebook group (from which I borrowed the title of this post).

The casualty list.

A list of celebs sporting Che shirts.

Okay, so it's clear that teenagers, as part of their ongoing search for an identity, require hip subversive icons. I propose having some shirts printed up in the same revo-chic style, using lesser known freedom fighters -- how about Guy Fawkes? Post-"V for Vendetta," he's acquired a certain hipness, but his image lacks Che's romantic appeal... maybe some photoshop work to provide him with that tortured, windblown look?

13 July 2007

Irresistable force, meet immovable object.

The WSJ says:

In neighborhoods across the country, there's a battle brewing: the environmentalists vs. the aesthetes.

As "green"-minded homeowners move to put in new energy-efficient windows, solar panels and light-reflecting roofs, they are bumping up against neighbors and local boards that object, saying the additions defy historic-district regulations, will look ugly or damage property values.
I have a front-row seat for this: Boulder, always a nexus of green policy, and its bedroom communities are starting to brush up against Denver's upper-middle-class northern suburbs, consisting entirely of covenant-controlled neighborhoods. (HT: TigerHawk.)

On capitalism and commerce-free zones

Julian Sanchez today:

It is perfectly coherent to be a thoroughgoing free-marketeer, to appreciate how deftly the price system harnessed the self-love of thousands of individuals, from lumberjacks and miners to carpenters and plumbers, in order to produce your local church—and yet still prefer that Starbucks refrain from opening up shop in the narthex. Having bought prophylactics at the corner deli in the evening does not forbid you from taking umbrage if your lover leaves a fifty on the nightstand the following morning. The most ardent capitalist will want a few spaces where she can feel confident that her neighbor's friendliness is not the opening gambit in a pitch to sell her a T-shirt, even if she was happy to buy the one she's wearing.
This is exactly right, except that an awful lot of people who describe themselves as anti-capitalist or anti-corporate miss this point completely. It seems to be hard for these types to get that, by the miracle of private or quasi private (co-op) property, you can take what benefits you choose from commerce even while excluding unwanted commercial interactions from certain spheres.

Full post here, on why Burning Man attendees who are frustrated that some companies will get to exhibit new green technologies this year have a point.

Campus police blow off threats to CU biology professors

The situation: the University of Colorado biology department has been receiving threats from a middle-eastern religious fundamentalist for teaching evolutionary theory. One letter reads, "EBIO (evolutionary biology) professors are terrorists against America and intellectual and spiritual child abusers of their young and impressionable students..." and an email sent today says that "every true Christian should be ready and willing to take up arms to kill the enemies of Christian society.”

Although they've identified a suspect, the campus police dismiss the seriousness of the threats; here's CU police commander Brad Wiesley: "Just because you feel threatened, it's not necessarily a crime. It's not directed against a specific person, John and Jane Doe. It's more along a line of ideology - if you believe this, we think you're wrong, kind of thing.”

The suspect is an Israeli Christian fundamentalist -- is it cynical to suggest that if he were a middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalist, trying to mobilize religious zealots against an American university, the response would probably be a bit different?

12 July 2007

As long as they're born in America, right, Tom?

Tancredo today at the NAACP presidential forum:

“We may not agree on all issues, but we do have a very common cause – that the playing field is level for everyone, and the gates of opportunity are open for all.”

On mammoths

A well-preserved baby mammoth, my favorite of all extinct species, was found recently in Siberia. Reasons I like mammoths:

1. Like me, they thrived in cold environments, but not so much in snow.

2. They were the subject of one of the most famous pop-science hoaxes.

3. The ancestors of modern elephants diverged from mammoths around the same time humans and chimps split off from their common ancestor.

4. According to several web sources, "mammoth" comes from old Russian "mammut" meaning something like "earth mole." Evidently Estonian farmers who found the bones thought they belonged to giant burrowing animals that died on contact with the light.

5. If mammoths are like their elephant relations, they spent about 16 hours a day looking for food, eating food, giving each other food, fighting over who gets the food, moving to where more food is, and so on. Also like me!

Can we revoke this guy's Colorado citizenship or something?

Colorado's Tom Tancredo in the news again:

Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo knows what he wants. "Oh boy, I'd love a plane," Tancredo said. It's not that the Colorado congressman is enamored with flying. In fact, he's spent enough time waiting to board planes to last a lifetime. And that's the problem.
Tancredo, like the other lesser-known presidential candidates, must make his way to Iowa and other campaign stops by flying commercially. While the leading candidates fly on charter or corporate jets, the rest of the field deals with delays along with other travelers [...].

"It can be very challenging," Tancredo said. "Just from a logistical standpoint it's a nightmare."
A shame that something as trivial as a total lack of serious campaign funding can interfere with the vital business of running for president.

Oh, and Tancredo also introduced today the Optimizing Visa Entry Rules and Demanding Uniformed Enforcement (OVERDUE) Immigration Bill. Are there consultants who specialize in coming up with the all-important cute acronyms?

Early Friday time suck: do your part to organize the universe.

Following the trend of using human brains to do visual classification work that is easy for us, hard for computers, GalaxyZoo.org uses web surfers to classify the million galaxies being photographed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Procrastinators, follow me!

John Mackey, I want to give you a break, but c'mon...

More online adventures with Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey:

The chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc. wrote anonymous online attacks against a smaller rival and questioned why anyone would buy its stock, before Whole Foods announced an offer to buy the other company this year.

The postings on Internet financial forums, made under the name "rahodeb," said Boulder-based Wild Oats Markets Inc.'s stock was overpriced. The statements predicted the company would fall into bankruptcy and then be sold after its stock fell below $5 per share.

The company acknowledged that the postings by "rahodeb" were written by CEO John Mackey.

One posting, from January 2005, questioned why anyone would buy shares of Wild Oats at their price then of about $8 each, The Wall Street Journal reported. "Would Whole Foods buy (Wild Oats)? Almost surely not at current prices," rahodeb wrote. "What would they gain? (Their) locations are too small."

Rahodeb also said Wild Oats' management "clearly doesn't know what it is doing." The company, he wrote, "has no value and no future."

I was more or less in sympathy with Mackey's anti-FTC blog rant, but this is awfully silly. I'm curious to know how somebody dug this up, though.

Colorado Highlights from 2006 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard

Overall, Colorado ranked 15th nationally in energy efficiency policies, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. (PDF here; free registration required to view the full report.) Score breakdown (points/possible points):

Spending on Utility and Public Benefits Energy Efficiency Programs: 1.5/15
Energy Efficiency Resource Standards (EERS): 5/5
Combined Heat and Power (CHP): 3/5
Building Energy Codes: 3/5
Transportation Policies: 0/5
Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards: 0/5
Tax Incentives: 1/3
State Lead by Example and Research & Development: 2/3
Total score: 15/44

The three highest ranking states, with scores of 33, were California, Connecticut, and Vermont.

11 July 2007

Lest we bloggers forget how good we have it:

Writers were as desperate to get their work published in medieval times as they are now. As books were exclusively hand-written until the invention of the printing press around the middle of the 15th century, publication sometimes meant reading your text aloud to a public that was lavishly entertained - at your expense.

10 July 2007

Starbucks and secret pricing

Whoa! Via Katherine, my favorite Hit & Run-er, behold the secret Starbucks 'short cappuccino':

Here's a little secret that Starbucks doesn't want you to know: They will serve you a better, stronger cappuccino if you want one, and they will charge you less for it. Ask for it in any Starbucks and the barista will comply without batting an eye. The puzzle is to work out why.

[The short cappuccino] is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off.

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible.

A firm in a perfectly competitive market would suffer if it sabotaged its cheapest products because rivals would jump at the opportunity to steal alienated customers. Starbucks, with its coffee supremacy, can afford this kind of price discrimination, thanks to loyal, or just plain lazy, customers.
First of all, how did I miss this crucial bit of information, being a more-than-occasional Starbucks consumer? Second, what's the problem here? The author of the above analysis faults SB for making this special bargain 'available only to those customers who face the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to request it specifically.' Isn't this true for basically every type of service profession, and many types of goods? Although America has never really taken to the haggling concept, it's effective for getting better deals on (just from personal experience) car repair, phone service, clothing, printing costs, and airline tickets. Not one of these businesses advertises the fact that lower prices are available for the asking. I understand that for right now, Starbucks = Evil Corporate America, but is this really that different from other, popularly accepted forms of price discrimination?

Attention childhood science fair geeks:

I am so into this. I knew about it once, but forgot, and then Wired reminded me.

That darned scientific consensus again...

From Rob Day's Always On post: 'Update on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics... it still applies.'

What's clear is that all the hyperbole surrounding "free energy" and the like isn't helping the adoption of any such efficiency-improvement technologies. It's making potential customers even more skeptical, and holding back adoption for these and any other similar-sounding approaches. And thus, VCs are forced to consider the Steorns of the world when they see a new electric motor concept promising significant gains...

[The examples mentioned in the post] serve as good illustrations of the kinds of reputation-endangering activities out there in the broader world of cleantech that VCs are having to pay attention to. Because serious or not, when such overly-aggressive claims are put out there it competes with more sober claims being made by VC-backed startups. And if and when these companies fall flat on their face, it could hurt overall market adoption of next generation technologies, making it that much more difficult for VC-backed startups to get traction in the marketplace.

I get that companies working on alternative energy don't want to be embarrassed or discredited by companies doing work in 'silly' areas, and zero-point energy is almost universally accepted as a silly area, except by those who think it will solve our energy problems forever. What's the big deal, though? There have been snake-oil salesmen before, and there have been inventions that, by respected scientific consensus, were completely impossible until they turned out to work. Why not let the market sort things out here, since scientific consensus invariably operates as a repressive force where inventions are concerned?

Libertarian smackdown, 20th century fiction version: Galt v. Frodo

Two of my favorite things, together at last! Via Reason Hit & Run, Juliusz Jablecki contrasts the respective masterpieces of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ayn Rand, and wonders which novel presents the truer libertarian vision. The essay focuses in on one major difference: the answer to the question of how to fight the system. Rand, of course, disliked statism and went after communism with a vengeance every chance she got, but Jablecki correctly notes that "in Atlas Shrugged [...] it is hard not to notice that somebody drives the world, maintains the reality in order, and without him everything would plunge into chaos." In Middle-Earth, on the other hand, there's no big plan for the world, no one running things, no unified political consciousness, no system. Rand, despite her big talk about statism, seems determined to have her characters implement a top-down solution, a solution based on crashing and then rebooting society around the most productive, creative members. Tolkien's solutions to Middle-Earth problems are much smaller, more individualistic, bottom-up.

I'm on board with this analysis as far as it goes, but it seems to overlook some important questions about motivation. Hobbits, presented by Jablecki as the ideal small-libertarians, content to cultivate their gardens, can only be moved to action by powerful wizards, who themselves have some decidedly unlibertarian tendencies -- plans for everyone, and the willingness to intimidate others into following along. It's worth remembering that Tolkien frequently described the hobbits as child-like, not just in stature but in moral character: simple, generous, fun-loving, innocent, ignorant of the great evils afoot in the world. The part of the world where hobbits live is protected by the aforementioned powerful wizards, for the purpose of preserving this child-like nature. This seems to be not a great model for libertarians in the 21st century, or any century, really.

Jablecki also criticizes Rand's tendency to anoint 'supermen' among her characters, people who are just more productive, more creative, more intelligent. I think this is a reasonable criticism, especially since for many of Rand's characters (especially women), philosophy seems to be more or less replaced by hero worship. But Tolkien's world, too, is populated by those who seem to motivate others by virtue of their power or personal charisma, rather than by reasoned persuasion. Mostly these are wizards and elves, endowed with extraordinary gifts, but sometimes they are humans endowed with extraordinary destinies. Interestingly, these more-than-humans always have ancestry tracing back to elves somewhere along the line. There's a strong element of hereditary destiny and elitism running through Tolkien, which for me has always overpowered the more parochial, small-libertarian hobbit lifestyle.

06 July 2007

Exploding the energy myths of the 20th century

From a Gristmill guest blog from the Policy Director at Climate Solutions, on assumptions about energy that are (finally) being blown out of the water:

"Cheap" gas: The gig is already up. But c'mon, it was a lie anyway. The price at the pump is a small fraction of the true cost of gas -- in dollars, blood, and climate disruption. Expensive gas is just the ugly truth about fossil fuel addiction: it's unaffordable.
The whole post is worth reading, both for its nicely non-hysterical take on the (environmental and economic) necessity of moving away from fossil fuels, and for its discussion of why nuclear power ought to be back on the table as a potential renewable power source.

05 July 2007

I'd like to think I'm more of a 'chartreuse.'

Reason Hit & Run gives a pointer to this article from the New York Times covering the 'light green' movement, middle- and upperclass shoppers who have transformed green consumerism from weird, hippie stuff into luxury status symbol. The article is filled with quotable soundbites, but here's my favorite, from environmentalist blogger Chip Giller:

“Over even the last couple of months, there is more concern growing within the traditional camp about the Cosmo-izing of the green movement — ‘55 great ways to look eco-sexy,’ ” he said. “Among traditional greens, there is concern that too much of the population thinks there’s an easy way out.”

I understand the concern being expressed in the article, at least insofar as it reflects a genuine worry that people will buy more and more stuff because it's eco-friendly, the way that some people eat more and more cookies because they're fat-free and thus 'healthy.' Buying more and more stuff, even if it's 'healthy' by comparison, can't be part of an overall plan to reduce waste and energy costs.

But in reality, buying green does make a difference (a very small one) and is often the beginning of a lifestyle transformation, so one would think that its increasing trendiness should be celebrated by all as a promising start. I get the impression here that the real gripe among hard-core environmentalists is that they don't want to lose their unique status. In many social circles, the movement created a 'green chic' for those who were insightful and educated enough to adopt early; these people do NOT want to be lumped in with the next-wave imitators.

Giller also mentions the 'culture of self-abnegation' that goes along with traditional environmentalism -- for this branch of the movement, if it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right. If you've sacrificed a lot in the belief that it was required by environmental consciousness, you might very well want to exclude from the movement those who buy their way in via a $104,000 Lexus hybrid. What's going to be very frustrating for this latter group of 'give-till-it-hurts' environmentalists: the way of the future will almost certainly be ecologically responsible consumption without any appreciable decline in the standard of living we've come to know and love. Changes, yes, but barring a major environmental disaster, probably not of the belt-tightening, self-denying type glorified by the early green movement; most Americans will, in fact, get to take the 'easy way out': shifting gradually to an eco-friendly lifestyle as it becomes cheaper, simpler, and trendier to do so.

Bio science fiction

From Nature: science fiction writers interviewed about why sci-fi tends to focus on technologies from the physical sciences, and why the genre is good for exploring tough questions in (bio)science ethics. In my case, they're preaching to the choir: in college, I organized an entire philosophy seminar course around Is Data Human? The Metaphysics of Star Trek. Sure, the in-class dialogue sounded a little silly, but I'm pretty sure that class was where I learned how to actually think about philosophical issues (as opposed to how to read and interpret philosophy texts).

03 July 2007

Life: a Newtonian property of molecules?

Last week's Nature editorial tries to look on the bright side regarding 'cut and paste' manipulation of genes on a cellular level:

Synthetic biology's view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a 'divine spark' abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg — recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious — then the role of the term 'life' in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.
The interesting bit of information at the heart of the editorial is that, contrary to what common sense would tell us, it's actually kind of difficult to find a bright-line test for aliveness at the cellular level. It's true, of course, that this ought to be a problem for those who believe that human life starts at conception. But advocates of the 'divine spark' position have had no problem resisting decades of data about fetal development indicating that, for whatever uniquely 'human' qualities one might define as central to the question, development of these qualities is always "gradual, contingent and precarious." It's unlikely that those committed to belief in the 'spark' will be troubled much by the additional complexity of deciding when a bundle of cells can properly be called 'alive.'

On a larger level, it seems that synthetic biology is positioned to do for the concept of 'life' what quantum mechanics did for the concept of 'physical reality.' Just as QM tells us that, way down on the subatomic level, physical reality breaks down into a set of wave functions and probabilities that just looks like the Newtonian world we think we inhabit, synthetic biology suggests that way down on a cellular level, life breaks down into a series of looped molecular processes that just looks like a 'spark of life.' Results: no bright-line test to distinguish matter from energy, or life from not-life. Which is fine and good, and fun to contemplate, but when was the last time you heard someone outside of a physics lab describing the world in terms of wave functions? Most non-physicist people, even people who accept the mathematical inevitability of QM, still perform their day-to-day thinking in terms of a classically physical universe, because it makes sense on the human scale. What's more, they believe in the physical universe, no matter what physics has to say. Similarly, even as people other than molecular biologists come to understand and accept a non-vitalistic, complexity-oriented view of life, it doesn't seem likely to become a big part of the public debate over things like abortion; it simply fails to fit into the human-scaled belief structure that almost all of us bring with us into ethics discussions.