Skip to content

Great Aubrey de Grey Talk

Come for the awesome beard, stay for the interesting intro to de Grey’s longevity research:

Posted in Geekery, Science/Tech.

When We Play God, We Play to Win

Well, for the first time in history, scientists have created a synthetic genome and successfully transplanted it into a cell. There is now life on this planet whose genome is entirely the work of human hands. These breakthroughs, published in Science (article scan provided by the Guardian) by a team lead by Craig Venter, represent a huge step forward in human engineering. This opens the door a wide range of bio-engineered micro-organisms that could be useful in everything from medicine, to ecological preservation, to classical engineering, to just plain day-to-day life.

So seriously, how cool is that? Human beings have officially created synthetic life! *Insert techno-utopian, geek-squee happy dance here.*

Now undoubtedly, there will be Luddites and Primitivists and other species of the deranged wringing their hands and wailing and gnashing their teeth about people “Playing God”. I have news for them. People have been playing God since people were people. Part of human nature is an insatiable curiosity to discover and to create and to engineer our world and our environs to better suit us. That is part of what makes us who we are. Really, such things shouldn’t be called “playing God”, but rather “playing Human.” Though I suppose “playing Human” doesn’t scan as well.

My point is that “playing God” is part and parcel of human nature. The entirety of human history has involved a long, hard, slow march towards better understanding of our world, and towards developing better ways to adapt to it. This is not some vain attempt to punch above our weight class and become like God. This trend is simply an elegant expression of the curiosity and drive that resides in the human spirit.

So do we “play God”? And are Venter and team doing so in this instance? Undoubtedly. But we human beings “play God” because doing so is a natural human behavior. And when we play God, just us squared off against an uncaring world and an apathetic universe, we play to win.

Posted in Science/Tech.


This stuff looks crazy awesome. It’s called Sugru and it’s a moldable, putty-like substance that dries into a high-strength silicone. I love the idea, and I love that it’s being marketed precisely to people who like to hack things. Alas, it’s sold out at the moment, or I’d be buying some right now. I can think of at least a half dozen projects for which this would be perfect. (E.g. custom-fitted, cushy silicone recoil pad!)

Can’t wait for them to get more in stock.

I love that this product explicitly combines two of the things that I think are poised to help revolutionize our culture and our world: the hacker ethos and material science. Now maybe (read: definitely) this is starry-eyed utopianism on my part, but the more people who internalize the idea that they can and should hack their stuff, their world, and themselves, the better. I think that being a hacker speaks to one of the primal elements that makes us human. I think that a far better descriptor for us than “man the wise” (homo sapiens) is “man the hacker” (homo textor? Homo abetor?)

So now combine that hacker spirit with the fact that our fundamental understanding of how materials really work is just starting bear some really cool fruit, and the future begins to look pretty damned awesome. See, we, as a species, moved from the stage of using ambient materials we found around us (flint), to reproducing materials that we first created by serendipity (bronze), to fine-tuning those serendipitous materials (high-carbon steel). But it’s only recently that we’ve gotten to the point where we can actually design materials to achieve the properties we want. Sugru is one such designed material.

So human-designed materials that are explicitly targeted to the hacker soul in each of us. How awesome is that? Rhetorical question. The answer is, of course, “insanely”. Better (non-rhetorical) question: when can I get my hands on some?

Posted in Cool Stuff.

Why I’m a Techno-Utopian

Stories like this:

Skyonic’s plan to commercialize Skymine, a process that scrubs SOX, NO2, mercury, and other heavy metals from industrial plant exhaust and converts leftover CO2 into sodium bicarbonate, was just a glimmer in the company’s eye as recently as February. But this week Skyonic announced that it is opening a carbon mineralization demonstration facility at San Antonio-based Capitol Aggregates, one of the biggest cement plants in Texas. The plant comes courtesy of a $3 million DOE grant that also requires Skyonic to produce qualifying samples of its baking soda-like CO2 byproducts, which can be turned into animal feed, glass products, and even a growth catalyst for bioalgae.

Carbon capture and storage (the current leading method of reducing industrial CO2 emissions) was never a very good idea. Skyonics’ method, on the other hand, turns CO2 and other waste materials into usable products. It even plans to beat its competitors on efficiency, compete in the market, and turn a profit.

Pollution reduced, value added to the economy, and novel scientific processes refined and better understood. It’s hard to find such win-win-win scenarios in life, and yet science and technology seem to deliver them with stunning regularity.

Posted in Cool Stuff, Science/Tech.

“There weren’t tangerines in the Garden of Eden.”

Writing in Reason’s excellent Hit & Run blog, Katherine Mangu-Ward links to a presentation from the TED conference by Michael Specter.  In the presentation, Specter discusses science denialism, GM crops, vaccines, and the power of human technical development.  His basic point is that people who rail against vaccines and GM foodstuffs (e.g.) are essentially fighting on the side death and misery.

That seems like hyperbole, but I really don’t think it is.  They’re advocating for children to fall sick and face the real possibility of paralysis, disfigurement, disability or death.  They’re advocating for millions in Africa to starve for lack of the crops that have saved millions in India.  They’re advocating for the repression of the human knowledge at the cost of human life.

Now I, for one, will never suggest that they should be muzzled.  But at the same time, they should not be suffered in silence.  Vaccines and GM foods save lives.  And those that oppose them also oppose those lives.

But enough of my babble, here’s the video.  Despite my political objections to some of Specter’s commentary, I think it’s excellent overall:

Posted in Science/Tech.

SolarBeat FTW

This is a neat little demonstration of the orbital periods of the planets.  The audio/visual combination is particularly cool.  The orbital periods are, to my mind, one of the best ways to highlight how our normative ideas of time and distance break down once we get off our little rock.

The last time Neptune was at this time of its year, the Mexican-American War was just warming up and hadn’t even become a shooting conflict yet.  It hadn’t even been discovered by human beings, yet.

A year ago on Mercury was in early January here on Earth.

Posted in Cool Stuff, Geekery, Science/Tech.

Great Moments in Globalization

This morning I woke up early and had breakfast, including an Anjou pear grown in South America, purchased for less than a dollar less than a mile from my house.  I ate it while reading a British translation of an Italian author at my desk, which I assembled from a kit made in China.  I think next I’ll send a near-instantaneous message to my friend living in Taiwan, before I pull on my Mexican-made shoes and walk to work, where I’ll ask my coworker how his parents (from Porbandar, India) are enjoying their visit so far.

This evening, I’m planning on going to an event held at a restaurant specializing in Japanese cuisine, before meeting some friends afterwords at an Irish-themed pub.

There is literally no part of life that isn’t globalized.  And I’ll be damned if that isn’t one of the coolest things about living in the future.

Posted in Misc, Realtime Autobiography.

Lippmann’s Core of Morality

I’m currently reading Thomas Sowell’s book A Conflict of Visions. It’s extremely interesting so far. Sowell’s thesis (that many of the major conflicts in modern politics are conflicts regarding human nature) is interesting and well-articulated. So far, though, the single most interesting bit of the book has been the quote that Sowell uses to lead off the second chapter:

“At the core of every moral code, there is a picture of human nature, a map of the universe, and a version of human history. To human nature (of the sort conceived), in a universe (of the kind imagined), after a history (so understood), the rules of the code apply.”  – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Setting aside for a moment some of the metaphysical questions raised about morality-as-such by Lippmann’s assertion, I think that his model of morality is a pretty accurate one, at least in so far as it applies to moral reasoning by individuals. People’s views of people, the world at large, and the story of history do seem to be the three pillars on which their moralities rest.  I think there are a few other pieces of the puzzle, but all of the ones that I can think of can pretty easily be reduced to a special case of one or more of Lippmann’s three points.  (E.g. I think you could say that hopes for and predictions of the future feature heavily into moral reasoning.  But that could easily be framed as just trying to predict or direct the next act in the story that history has told us thus far.)

It’s an interesting formulation, and one that I’m not totally done mulling over. I just wanted to throw it up here, largely to see if any of my (brilliant, erudite, charming) readers have commentary or objections to the idea. Any thoughts or comments?

Posted in Philosophy.

A Turn for the Meta

Two bits of meta humor to help get you through the week. First, “Academy Award Winning Movie Trailer”:

Second, this segment from the show Newswipe, done by the inimitable Charlie Brooker:

Posted in Cool Stuff, Geekery.

Urban Wildlife and Selective Moral Agency

I’m constantly amazed by the fact that people are not the only creatures living and thriving in the modern urban environment.  For all the effort that people have put into shaping our environment (an act which is, in itself, quintessentially human) we’ve managed to provide a thriving ecosystem that supports tons of other species in ways that no one could have predicted at the outset.

Just in my city (a metropolis of just under 500,000 people), I’ve seen a huge number of species in the heart of town.  A partial list includes raccoons, foxes, marmots, skunks, geese, ducks, mice, rats, coyotes, pigeons, hawks (several species), and crows.  On a recent walk down to the river and back, I counted eight different sorts of non-human animals living, apparently comfortably, in the city.  These are all animals that have adapted from their natural environments to thrive in these new, artificial1 ones.

What struck me on this particular walk, is that this phenomenon, i.e. species adapting to a change in environment, is the fundamental driving force of evolution.  And human beings have instigated these changes in environments all around the globe. Both intentionally (e.g. through urbanization) and unintentionally (e.g. pollution). This lead me to thinking about epic climatic and environmental shifts and the fact that all of the environmental changes that we’re seeing all around the globe have qualitatively similar analogs in geological history. Temperatures have swung wildly just in human history, and have done even more so in the millions of years that large animals have been wandering the earth.

These historical changes in environment have caused the extinctions of many species and the adaptations of others. Indeed, there’s good evidence for the notion that we have one or more of these environmental changes to thank for many facets of our biology, including our giant brains, our upright gate, and our mostly hairless bodies.2 These changes, and transitively the extinctions and evolution they elicited, have been caused by a wide range of factors, from the impact of celestial objects to volcanic eruptions to tipping-point changes in the amount of plant life on the planet.

And yet the only environmental changes in the history of the planet, which people ever talk about in moral terms are the ones that we credibly have a hand in. Now this is undeniably due to the fact that we are moral agents. One simply can’t hold an asteroid responsible for changing the earth’s climate.

But to simply make the distinction that human-caused ecological changes are moral issues and other kinds aren’t doesn’t really capture the way people think about climate or environmental change. We seem to only be willing to cast a certain subset of these changes in moral terms. We seem willing to accept our agency and take the blame for big, abstract changes to the environment that don’t really have any personal impacts, but not to smaller, concrete changes which many of us find personally convenient. After all, not even the staunchest adversaries of global warming seriously suggest that urbanization is a moral issue. And those that due tend either to be derided as nutjobs or just ignored like the crazy uncle at Christmas.

Urbanization has changed the environment (at least in a local fashion) all over the globe. What’s more, it’s done so to a much greater extent than has global warming. As of a few years ago, half the people on the planet live in large urban centers. About two dozen of these urban centers now have populations over ten million people. The largest of them, the megalopolis of Tokyo, has over thirty million.3 Many of these urban centers cover thousands of square miles of territory, with suburban sprawl spreading for many more miles outward from them. All of these radically changes the local environment, putting huge stresses on species, ecosystems, and even local weather.4

And yet no one seriously suggests that the existence of Tokyo is a moral problem. And if anyone did, they’d immediately be pushed to the margins of the conversation. We seem to simply accept radical shifts of local environment. Huge environmental changes that we see every day (e.g. roads, sky scrapers, suburban sprawl) are considered fine, dandy, business as usual. But take a few abstract steps back and say that the globe is warming (a phenomenon that none of us can really experience directly), and suddenly, it seems, people are far enough removed from the issue to talk about it in terms of moral outrage.

Tell me that my house is an environmental change and therefore evil and I’ll ignore and deride you. Tell me that my “carbon footprint” is evil and I’ll go right out and buy a bicycle. The only real difference, it seems, is one of abstraction. It can’t possibly be one of scope, after all, since the building of a house does far more damage to the local ecosystem (effectively obliterating a portion of it) than one car does to the global ecosystem.

It seems to me, then, that it’s the abstraction that allows us to consider environmental changes in moral terms. To consider the small, concrete changes that human beings make and benefit from every day (and have been for as long as we’ve been human), seems to just cut too close to home. Sure, my modest city of a half million people displaced hundreds of square miles of natural environment, drove out many species, and dwindled the numbers of some that are decidedly imperiled. But no one in their right mind is going to say that Spokane is Evil.

“And really”, we seem to say, “what does it matter? We still have hawks in the sky, geese in the river, and raccoons in the garbage bins. Sure we changed this environment, but it’s convenient, and anyway, some of the critters seem to be doing alright by the change.

Now if only we could do something about those accursed SUV drivers and their carbon footprints, everything would be just fine.”

1The term “artificial” here is used only in the sense of “a work of artifice”, and is not intended to convey any moral judgment.
2For an interesting, if highly speculative, article on this topic, see Scientific American’s Feb. 2010 issue. The article, by Nina G. Jablonski, is entitled “Why Humans Have No Fur”. Here’s a link to the article online, though most of it sits behind a pay-wall.
3According to this excessively long and extremely cynical article about Japan, there are 60 million people living within a one-hour commute from the center of Tokyo.
4Urban Heat Islands are probably the handiest and best known example of urban centers changing local weather systems.

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Realtime Autobiography.