Sunday, 27 December 2009

The censorship of "Putin: The dark rise to power"

The following article was originally published in GQ in September 2009:
Putin: The dark rise to power: "Ten years ago this month, Russia was rocked by a series of mysterious apartment bombings that left hundreds dead. It was by riding the ensuing wave of fear and terror that a then largely unknown Vladimir Putin rose to become the most powerful man in the country. But there were questions about the nature of those bombings - and disturbing evidence that the perpetrators might actually have been working for the Russian government. In the years since then, the people who had been questioning the official version of events began one by one to go silent or even turn up dead. Except one man. Scott Anderson finds him."
A powerful tale, true or not, on power and corruption.

What reinforces the suspicion that this story is more than yet another wacky conspiracy theory is the effort that GQ spent on suppressing it, including, but not limited to, removing any mention from its cover, withdrawing it from its Website, and removing it from its Russian versions. The picture this affair draws on the state of human rights in the former soviet empire is not encouraging.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A sober look at Hanukkah

Those who underwent Jewish upbringing may have received the religious rationalization for Hanukkah: a standard take on the few vs. many/David and Goliath fable. A legend that contained the right mixture of miracles, self sacrifice, and reckless acts of "heroism", it mainly served in the propaganda of the religious right and settler terrorists, who are perhaps the only ones in Israel to commemorate it with fanfare.

But what has traditionally been a very minor Jewish holiday has become in the diaspora synonymous with "the Jewish Christmas" for no reason other than because Jewish parents in the complacent post-Christian West felt the pressure to compete with the popular ritual of shopping orgy and excess taking place every Christmas. Only naturally, the politically correct were quick to embrace the Hanukkah token as a rhetorical nod to the false god of tolerance (using the word 'Hanukkah' proves that I'm enlightened and open minded).

To those of us who were blissfully ignorant of it, David Brooks of the NY Times offers a synopsis of the religious and the secular versions of the Hanukkah story:
The Maccabees are best understood as moderate fanatics. They were not in total revolt against Greek culture. They used Greek constitutional language to explain themselves. They created a festival to commemorate their triumph (which is part of Greek, not Jewish, culture). Before long, they were electing their priests.

On the other hand, they were fighting heroically for their traditions and the survival of their faith. If they found uncircumcised Jews, they performed forced circumcisions. They had no interest in religious liberty within the Jewish community and believed religion was a collective regimen, not an individual choice.

They were not the last bunch of angry, bearded religious guys to win an insurgency campaign against a great power in the Middle East, but they may have been among the first. They retook Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and rededicated the temple. Their regime quickly became corrupt, brutal and reactionary. The concept of reform had been discredited by the Hellenizing extremists. Practice stagnated. Scholarship withered. The Maccabees became religious oppressors themselves, fatefully inviting the Romans into Jerusalem.
To summarize, looking at the picture as a whole, Hanukkah is pretty much the same three-G combination (God, Gore, and Greed) you see in the story behind every other religious holiday. Keep it in mind when you decorate your Hanukkah bush.

Jolly holiday and a happy new year!

Plant bill of rights?

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences delivered the following bizarre piece of news. Apparently, plants are much more capable for interacting efficiently with its animated environment than you would expect:

Another Challenge for Ethical Eating - Plants Want to Live, Too [, 23 Dec 2009]

Certain plants can sense when insect eggs have been deposited on their leaves and will act immediately to rid themselves of the incubating menace. ... when a female cabbage butterfly lays her eggs on a brussels sprout plant and attaches her treasures to the leaves with tiny dabs of glue, the vigilant vegetable detects the presence of a simple additive in the glue, benzyl cyanide. Cued by the additive, the plant swiftly alters the chemistry of its leaf surface to beckon female parasitic wasps. Spying the anchored bounty, the female wasps in turn inject their eggs inside, the gestating wasps feed on the gestating butterflies, and the plant’s problem is solved.

Here’s the lurid Edgar Allan Poetry of it: that benzyl cyanide tip-off had been donated to the female butterfly by the male during mating. “It’s an anti-aphrodisiac pheromone, so that the female wouldn’t mate anymore,” Dr. Hilker said. “The male is trying to ensure his paternity, but he ends up endangering his own offspring.”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Microcephaly genes associated with human brain size

Fresh from Science Daily are news on the genetic mechanism determining the size of the cerebral cortex:
Microcephaly genes associated with human brain size

ScienceDaily (Dec. 22, 2009) — A group of Norwegian and American researchers have shown that common variations in genes associated with microcephaly ... may explain differences in brain size ...

In relation to body size, brain size has expanded dramatically throughout primate and human evolution. In fact, in proportion to body size, the brain of modern humans is three times larger than that of non-human primates. The cerebral cortex in particular has undergone a dramatic increase in surface area during the course of primate evolution. ...

mutations in [The microcephaly] genes can reduce brain size by about two-thirds, to a size roughly comparable to our early hominid ancestors. There is also evidence that four of the genes -- MCPH1, ASPM, CDK5RAP2 and CENPJ -- have evolved rapidly and have been subject to strong selective pressure in recent human evolution....

The most statistically significant associations were consistently found with the areal expansion measure, which has implications also for future studies...

Highly significant associations were found between cortical surface area and polymorphisms in possible regulatory regions near the gene CDK5RAP2. ...

"One particularly interesting feature of this new discovery is that the strongest links with cortical area were found in regulatory regions, rather than coding regions of the genes," said Andreassen. "One upshot of this may be that in order to further understand the molecular and evolutionary processes that have determined human brain size, we need to focus on regulatory processes rather than further functional characterization of the proteins of these genes. This has huge implications for future research on the link between genetics and brain morphology."

Saturday, 31 October 2009

This is from The Telegraph, not The Onion:

Chief drugs adviser sacked by Home Secretary

Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, has sacked his chief drugs adviser, Professor David Nutt, after he criticised the reclassification of cannabis and said alcohol and cigarettes were more dangerous than ecstasy.
Read it for yourself if you don't believe it.

It's less funny further on:
This week he called for the current drug classification system to be replaced with a "drug harm ranking" including legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

Prof Nutt said: ... Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, "makes completely irrational statements about cannabis being 'lethal', which it is not".

He said:"I'm not prepared to mislead the public about the harmfulness of drugs like cannabis and ecstasy," he said.

"I think most scientists will see this as a further example of the Luddite attitude of this government, and possible future governments, towards science."

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

CfP: The Philosophy of Computer Science (special issue of Minds & Machines)

Special issue of Minds and Machines (Fall 2010)

Important dates:

  • Submission deadline: 1 Dec. 2009 extended to: 1 Jan. 2010
  • Notification: 1 May 2010
  • Appearance (tentative): Dec. 2010

Submission page:

Size limit: fifteen thousand words. More submission guidelines: See Springer' Instructions to Authors

Two special editions of Minds and Machines (2007) and the Journal of Applied Logic (2008) dedicated to the philosophy of computer science have already appeared in print. Another special edition of Minds and Machines is planned for 2010. We invite submissions concerned with philosophical issues that arise from reflection upon the nature and practice of the academic discipline of computer science. In particular we welcome submissions concerned with questions such as the following (Turner & Eden 2008):

  1. What kinds of things are programs? Are they abstract or concrete? (Moor 1978; Colburn 2004)
  2. What are the differences between programs and algorithms? (Rapaport 2005a)
  3. What is a specification? And what is being specified? (Smith 1985; Turner 2005)
  4. Are specifications fundamentally different from programs? (Smith 1985)
  5. What is an implementation? (Rapaport 2005b)
  6. What distinguishes hardware from software? Do programs exist in both physical and symbolic forms? (Moor 1978; Colburn 2004)
  7. What kinds of things are digital objects? Do we need a new ontological category to house them? (Allison et al. 2005)
  8. What are the objectives of the various semantic theories of programming languages? (White 2004; Turner 2007)
  9. How do questions in the philosophy of programming languages relate to parallel ones in the philosophy of language? (White 2004)
  10. Does the principle of modularity (e.g., Dijkstra 1968) relate to the conceptual issues of full-abstraction and compositionality?
  11. What are the underlying conceptual differences between the following programming paradigms: structured, functional, logic, and object-oriented programming?
  12. What are the roles of types in Computer Science? (Barandregt 1992; Pierce 2002)
  13. What is the difference between operational and denotational semantics? (Turner 2007)
  14. What does it mean for a program to be correct? What is the epistemological status of correctness proofs? Are they fundamentally different from proofs in mathematics? (DeMillo et al. 1979; Smith 1985)
  15. What do correctness proofs establish? (Fetzer 1988; Fetzer 1999; Colburn 2004)
  16. What is abstraction in computer science? How is it related to abstraction in mathematics? (Colburn & Shute 2007; Fine 2008; Hale & Wright 2001)
  17. What are formal methods? What is formal about formal methods? What is the difference between a formal method and informal one? (Bowen & Hinchey 2005; Bowen & Hinchey 1995)
  18. What kind of discipline is computer science? What are the roles of mathematical modelling and experimentation? (Minsky 1970; Denning 1980; Denning 1981; Denning et al. 1989; Denning 1985; Denning 1980b; Hartmanis 1994; Hartmanis1993; Hartmanis 1981; Colburn 2004; Eden 2007)
  19. Should programs be considered as scientific theories? (Rapaport 2005a)
  20. How is mathematics used in computer science? Are mathematical models used in a descriptive or normative way? (White 2004; Turner 2007)
  21. Does the Church-Turing thesis capture the mathematical notion of an effective or mechanical method in logic and mathematics? Does it capture the computations that can be performed by a human? Does its scope apply to physical machines? (Copeland 2004; Copeland 2007; Hodges 2006)
  22. Can the notion of computational thinking withstand philosophical scrutiny? (Wing 2006)
  23. What is the appropriate logic with which to reason about program correctness and termination? (Hoare 1969; Feferman 1992) How is the logic dependent upon the underlying programming language?
  24. What is information? (Floridi 2004; Floridi 2005) does this notion throw light on some of the questions listed here?
  25. Why are there so many programming languages and programming paradigms? (Krishnamurthi 2003; Eden & Turner 2007)
  26. Do programming languages (and paradigms) have the nature of scientific theories? What causes a programming paradigm shift? (Kuhn 1970)
  27. Does software engineering raise any philosophical issues? (Eden 2007)

Raymond Turner, Amnon H. Eden
School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, University of Essex


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Future Shock: 30 years on

Alvin Toffler's Future Shock has won so many recommendations that I was afraid it will prove to be pop pulp. Finally I got over my prejudice and read the book. I was wrong.

30 years on, the book's numerous predictions are more accurate than any other I've ever come across (but please do enlighten me if you know better). He is right about the present. Consider this for example:

In the three short decades between now and the twenty-first century, millions of ordinary, psychologically normal people will face an abrupt collision with the future. Citizen’s of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations, will find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterizes our time. For them, the future will have arrived too soon. (p.11)

For the acceleration of change ... is a concrete force that reaches deep into our personal lives, compels us to act out new roles, and confronts us with with the danger of a new and powerfully upsetting psychological disease. (p.12)

Future shock is a time phenomenon, a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society. It arises from the superimposition of a new culture on the old one[:] a culture shock in one's own society. ....

Take an individual out of his own culture and set him down suddenly in an environment sharply different from his own, with a different set of cues to react to—different conceptions of time, space, work, love, religion, sex, and everything else—then cut him off from any hope of retreat to a more familiar social landscape, and the dislocation he suffers is doubly severe. Moreover, if this new culture is itself in constant turmoil, and if—worse yet—its values are incessantly changing, the sense of disorientation will be still further intensified. ... The victim may become a hazard to himself and others.

Now imagine not merely an individual but an entire society, an entire generation—including its weakest ... members—suddenly transported into this new world. The result is mass disorientation, future shock on a grand scale.

This is the prospect that man now faces. (p. 14)

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The truth about Amsterdam...

Someone in Fox News has apparently decided that Amsterdam is a sink of iniquity which should be used as an warning against legalizing marijuana. As a rebuttal, a diligent Dutch has prepared this hilarious clip titled "The truth about Amsterdam"