Archive for August, 2008

Aug 26 2008

Are We Buying This?

Are you buying this?

Water shipped from Fiji is being advertised as environmentally friendly. Wow.

One sustainability blogger estimates that the total amount of water used to produce and deliver a single one liter bottle of imported water is 6.74 liters, and 250 grams of greenhouse gases are released.

The company claims that it intends to become carbon neutral, but not actually: they’re buying carbon offsets, which don’t actually reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere (This is because there is no international framework to incrementally reduce the total number of credits available.)

There’s really no way around the fact that shipping water across the ocean in small plastic bottles is just a much dumber idea than getting it locally through pipes.

I mean, c’mon people.

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Aug 19 2008

In Ur Suburb, Selling U Burgers

Burger King has gone lol!!!

OMG!!! The local Burger King Slurpee machine sez: “cool it with ur fav flav.” Lolspeak is in ur multi-national!

Corporate America can has teh funny? No wai, only wants sell cheezburgers! Co-option of kulcher? Mebbeh. Or mebbeh teh kittehs win!

LOL!

Mai theweh, let me show you it. Lolspek is awsum meme, like new languish, even haz dik-shun-ary. Teh hoomans who lieks kittehs lieks cheezburgers too, so teh burger stoar lurnz lolspeaks.

But mebbe if enuf mawket-urs has teh lolspeak, iz not “authentic” n e moar? I doan no! Kwestions of “authenticity” in kulcher make mai hed asplode!

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Aug 17 2008

My Invisible Visa

Little known fact about the developing world #23: your friends can’t visit you. Citizens of the developed world generally know that immigration is restricted, that a random African (for example) can’t just move to a rich country and call it home. What most people don’t know is that, for the most part, the world’s billions cannot even come and visit.

The United States of America has of course become secretive and paranoid after 9/11, so I’ve used my home country of Canada as an illustrative example. A government web page lists those countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada. This is not to live or work in Canada, but merely to visit. I’ve summarized the results on a map. People from the blue places need a visa for entry.

Countries for which a visa is required to visit Canada

As you can see, most of the people in the world can’t simply show up at the airport for a visit.

Naturally, there is a procedure for obtaining a Canadian tourist visa. One goes to the nearest Canadian Embassy, typically in your capital city, for a visa application and interview. This is not a mere formality. As this Canadian government web page notes,

All applicants wishing to visit Canada must satisfy an officer that they will leave Canada by the end of the period authorized for the stay, that they will not contravene the conditions of admission (for example, that they will not study or work without prior authorization), and that they do not belong in a category of persons inadmissible to Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

In reaching a decision, an officer considers several factors, which may include:

  • the applicant’s travel and identity documents;
  • the reason for travel to Canada and the applicant’s contacts there;
  • the applicant’s financial means for the trip;
  • the applicant’s ties to his or her country of residence, including immigration status, employment and family ties;
  • whether the applicant would be likely to leave Canada at the end of the authorized stay.

This means you wait in line with a hundred other brown undesirables. This means you borrow money from your friends, family, or loan-shark moneylenders for that single-day bank statement that shows you much richer than you actually are. This means you make up reasons, swap stories and superstitions, and hope. Not all that many visas are issued per year, and maybe, just maybe, you can get away from your poor country, where everyone is starving / where the war is on / where you can’t possibly make a living. In Canada, you can become one of those people who works a good job and remits money each month to support your family back home. Sure, you won’t have a work permit, sure, you’re supposed to go back home in two weeks, but that can be sorted out later. The first step is just getting there, isn’t it? So please, Ganesh. I implore you, Allah– let me say the right thing to the stony-faced guardian of the borders when my turn comes. Let me be one of that fraction of a percent whose visas are granted.

The walls and telephone poles near every first-world embassy are papered with ads for shady immigration services.

But me, white first-worlder, I don’t have this problem. As a Canadian citizen, I can go to any of the blue countries whenever the whim takes me. I need visas too, of course, but that’s a sure thing, a birthright. I can walk into just about any embassy in the world, fill out a form, pay a fee, and arrange a trip to where ever I want to go. My developing world friends cannot; Baba and Shai and Mohammed can never come to visit me. Most of the world’s people are effectively trapped in their country of birth.

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Aug 16 2008

Access to Knowledge and the Banality of Evil

It pisses me off that there is a huge body of very important information that most people can’t get at. I’m not talking about books, the poor paper things, but the world’s academic and scientific journals, which are already online.

Most people don’t even know that the world’s academic journals exist, but this is the master record, the huge source that all those science blogs and mis-representative popular articles draw from. These research journals are the collective output of every professional researcher in the world, in all subjects — only you’re not allowed to read them.

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Aug 13 2008

Images Before and After Death

Before Death

I have recently run across an extraordinary project by photographers Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta. They took portraits of 11 people shortly before and shortly after dying. The photographs were displayed at the Wellcome Collection in London this spring.

I think this is wonderful, and one of the reasons I think it is wonderful is that there is really no more I care to say about it. There is nothing at all I can add to it.

Visit the online version of the exhibition.

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Aug 10 2008

Weak AI Will Win

Depending on who you ask, machines taking over the world is either a good thing for humanity or a bad thing. The traditional SciFi script has advanced intelligences replicating through all the networks of the galaxy and having high-bandwidth intellectual conversations about things like the fundamental nature of physics and whether biological life deserves to continue to exist, since it’s such an out-dated evolutionary stage and all. But in his new novel Daemon, and in his talk last night at the Long Now Foundation‘s lecture series, Daniel Suarez argues that it’s not hyper-intelligence at all that we need to be wary of: humanity can lose control of the situation well before the appearance of consciousness on the internet. We’re already delegating our decision making to the machines, specifically the lowly “bots” we use now for a variety of practical online tasks.

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Aug 08 2008

Medicine is the Killer App For Technology

I’ve met quite a few people who feel that civilization was a mistake. Technology in particular, they say, is bad in some way. If they’re an anarcho-primitivist theorist, they’ll tell you it’s alienating: it creates hierarchies, produces psychological illusions of scarcity, and turns us into little more than specialized insects. If they’re less geeky and more hippie, they’ll just expound on how happy they were living in that rural Indian village, how spiritual that life was, how much more natural a world without technology would be.

In the bright Nepali sunshine, sipping chai in a tourist cafe overlooking the lake, I found I could not agree, no matter how cute the dreadlocked girl sitting across from me. I see a lot of idealism and projection in her arguments. I also see an iPod in her bag. But neither could I come up with a concrete reason to insist that technology is fundamentally good, that the human race should invest as heavily in technology as it has. I admit that I really enjoy both the intellectual playground of technology and the fruits it brings, but that’s no way to form a moral imperative.

Until Ethiopia. I was working on a trachoma epidemiology study. This is an ancient, simple disease, and so fragile that the merest hint of civilization will destroy it — we’re not quite sure why yet. It could be antibiotics used for other things wipes it out, it could be that just washing your hands daily in clean water prevents its spread. But if left untreated long enough, this feeble disease will make you blind.

I had the cliché moment. I hiked out across the roadless wilderness to that idealized little village, that tiny traditional portion of the way we used to live. The simple folk gathered round us, gazing strangely at our white skin and synthetic fabrics. In turn we stared at their traditional cotton garments and coarse shiny jewelry, artifacts of a society that makes everything with its own hands. We stood a moment in that field, contemplating one another across vast distances of education and context. Then I looked into the scarred corneas of a blind young man and felt suddenly: this sucks. This man cannot see, for no reason at all. Extremely simple medicine could have prevented that.

It’s one of those moments when you realize that you’re not okay with the world as it is.

Medicine is good because health is good. I see no other way to draw this conclusion. And medicine is technological. Antibiotics are in no sense natural, x-rays and heart transplants less so. Medicine is the moral justification for continued technological development and dissemenation. It’s the killer app for technology, because it’s not just medical technology that must be known: modern medicine requires an entire technological infrastructure to design and manufacture its many, many inputs. Computers. Polymers. Superconducting magnets. Refrigerators to make the ice to keep cold our collected samples, and enzymes to do the PCR to detect the trachoma DNA, mathematics to do the statistical analysis to determine if our mass antibiotic distribution is actually denting the epidemic. It takes a world to raise a hospital.

That’s the moral reason for continued technological development. That blind man. Go tell his mother that we’d all be happier as hunter-gatherers.

Of course, that’s not why we actually will continue to develop our technology.

In the late afternoon sunlight I lounged against a tree, waiting for the last few villagers to show up so we could test them. They had fed us some (traditional, natural, idealized) beer, and I was sleepy and idle. I extracted my MP3 key from my kit and put the headphones in, leaned back to something relaxed. A kid came up to me, looking expectantly. He must have been about twelve.

“MP3 player?” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“How many gigabytes?” he asked. Then: “I want one.”

I find it hard to disagree with him.

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Aug 06 2008

The Singularity is Not Near

Blah blah blah singularity blah blah machine AI blah blah the world will undergo a paradigm shift, it’s coming, all bow down before the mighty new technologies that will change humanity forever. The problem I have with talk of the technological singularity is not that it doesn’t make sense, and not that I don’t believe that technological advancement is indeed rapid, accelerating, and world-changing, but that we have somehow invented a symbol of vast but actually rather vague significance. I don’t think the “singularity” is a useful idea. I think it’s a buzzword to some, and a religion to others.

For what makes Futurology (capitalization mine) really, actually different than a belief that something momentous will happen in 2012, when the Mayan calendar wraps around? Not a lot, as far as I can tell. And now it turns out that two religious scholars have concluded exactly the same thing, in a 2008 paper in the Journal of Contemporary Religion:

Futurology-as-religion has charismatic leaders, authoritative texts, mystique, and a fairly complete vision of salvation. Futurology is, in effect, a new religious movement (NRM).

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Aug 02 2008

Minds Are Tricky Things — Part III

Everybody thinks they know how their mind works, but they don’t. You can ask someone why they like their boyfriend, or why they chose a job, or whether a book changed their opinion of global warming, and they’ll think about it for a moment and happily give you an answer. But they’re making it up.

The experiments were done ages ago, and the research is still going, continuing to tease apart actual cause and psychological effect. We know now that what people tell us about their own mental processes is quite thoroughly inaccurate. We all believe that we have this magic thing called “introspection” that lets us see what is going on in our own minds, but in reality we don’t. It’s a fictional superpower.

The research on this point is really quite good. It’s not even a new finding, having been understood for at least the last fifty years. And yet this simple but important fact has never quite managed to make it into popular culture.

Perhaps no one wants to believe it.

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