Monthly Archives: October 2005

Enough – Bill McKibben (2003)


Bill McKibben‘s book Enough is a plea for reasoned debate over the impacts of genetic engineering, arguing that there is a line in the sand that we will be better off choosing not to cross. Essentially his argument is that a ‘genetically engineered’ human (say, someone whose embryo was tinkered with to make them smarter or more atheletic) will no longer find the same meaning in life that humans have experienced to this point. And at some point we may find that we’ve created a separate, enhanced, species that has little to do with humanity.

In the details, he argues that standard medicine and other non-genetic techniques can solve many of the medical issues that are used to argue for germline technology (for instance, the ability to test for certain debilitating diseases at an early stage). He feels that somatic gene therapy, which acts on a single individual, does not threated human meaning, but that germline activity (changing the DNA that will be inherited) is over the line. Not to mention human cloning!

McKibben makes a strong argument against the ‘techno-zealots’ like Rodney Brooks, Hans Moravec and others who claim that all genetic work is ‘inevitable’ – saying that they are simply interested in shutting down all debate.

I am a bit skeptical about the ability to make changes to DNA to make a person grow up to be ‘smarter’ (since I doubt we can define what this means), but I am sympathetic to McKibben’s argument. I do think there are some critical thresholds that we are approaching, and the social impact is massively important. I’d recommend Enough as a way to think about these issues. The books feels just a little dashed off, but I’d say that reflects the up-to-the-minute nature of the issues.

Meta Math! – Gregory Chaitin (2005)

Meta Math!

I read this new book by IBM researcher Gregory Chaitin in one big gulp. While Meta Math! has some actual math included, it’s not particularly necessary to follow his story. The subtitle is ‘The Search for Omega,’ and Omega is a infinitely precise real number which cannot be compressed (alternatively it is ‘irreduceable’ or ‘random’). The reason for this search is linked to Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the concept that any formal axiomatic system will contain true statements that can’t be proved by the axioms.

Chaitin is working in the same area, but with computers and programs, and so some of the key questions are about whether one can prove that a particular program is the ‘most elegant’ or shortest expression possible. He proves that one cannot prove such a thing. But he’s more interested in the philosophy behind these findings.

If we think of scientific theories as ‘compressed knowledge’ (ie. a short statement that implies a lot about the behavior of the world), then numbers like Omega that can’t be compressed represent the notion that some things that are true in the world cannot be linked back to simple theories. If randomness is an important quality of the universe, then apparently God is throwing dice!

Chaitin notes that Wolfram has a different point of view; that the universe contains seemingly random, pseudo-random, complexity that is the result of fairly simple rules (cellular automata). And there are interesting discussions of the strangeness of real numbers, pointing to the idea that perhaps these numbers of infinite precision are not good representations of things in the universe (that in fact the universe is in some sense digital and not continuous, that you reach a level where you can’t split things any further).

In the end, my understanding is that Chaitin recommends that Mathematics take a more experimental approach, since there are limits to what the formal approaches can discover. This idea is quite similar to what physicist Robert Laughlin recommends in his recent book A Different Universe (see my earlier post).

The book’s written in a breathless style with plenty of exclamation points, and it’s main body is just about 150 pages, so it pushes along quite nicely (except when Chaiten decides to talk a bit about the pleasures of making love). There’s good history of math included, in particular material on Leibniz, Cantor, Turing and others.

"William Eggleston in the Real World" (2005)

Eggleston film

I caught “William Eggleston in the Real World” at the Guild on Sunday, it’s a look at the photographer in action. Several interesting points:
1. He doesn’t shoot repeats, for the most part – he takes a shot quickly and then moves along. He comments that it would be hard to pick one if you had five or six shots of the same thing.
1.5. So he’s done something like 250,000 photographs, and they’re all good as far as he’s concerned. They all get printed, or at least most of the do.
2. He did an early video project in the early seventies, mostly shooting his friends and people in the Memphis area, often extremely close up. Some folks didn’t seem to like being filmed like that…
3. He uses a camera with a viewfinder.

Point 3 raises the issue of how using a viewfinder means you use one eye, and thus one lobe of the brain. How different might William Eggleston photos look if he used a camera with an LCD screen (ie. using both eyes to select shots)???

1491 – Charles Mann (2005)

1491 by Charles Mann1491 by Charles Mann is a wide ranging look at the native populations of the Americas prior to Columbus. This includes examinations of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations, the Maya and other groups in Mesoamerica, and some material on North American tribes.

I recommend this book because it really makes you think about what pre-conceptions we might have about the ‘Indians’ and what it might mean to us if indeed the pre-1491 populations were much larger and more ‘advanced’ than we’ve been taught. As with almost all human populations, it appears that the native americans were very inventive with their environments, and in some cases apparently made very long-lasting sustainable changes. This is a new view of ‘living lightly on the land’ that needs to be examined.

Arnold Kling on Kurzweil vs. Hawkins

I wrote a bit earlier about Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, as well as about Jeff Hawkin’s On Intelligence. In this short article on Tech Central Station, I think Arnold Kling gets to the heart of the matter, and I agree with his conclusions about Kurzweil’s shortcomings.


My sense is that Kurzweil basically thinks of the brain as disembodied. Although he frequently refers to our bodies, it is almost as an afterthought. In terms of an old mainframe computer, Kurzweil treats the body is if it were the punch-card reader, i.e., a rather quaint device for receiving input, but not nearly as significant as the Central Processing Unit.

Instead, after I read Jeff Hawkins (inventor of the Palm Pilot and author of On Intelligence), I became convinced that our bodies and our sensory experiences are an integral part of our intelligence. Kurzweil thinks of your brain as a computer programmed with a fancy pattern-recognition algorithm. Eventually, he predicts, scientists and engineers will “reverse engineer” this wonderful algorithm. On the other hand, I think that you have been exploring patterns ever since you played with your toes in the crib. It is this cumulative experience, rather than an algorithm, that constitutes your intelligence. The phrase “reverse engineer the brain” may sound plausible if one thinks of the brain as hardware plus software. But the phrase “reverse engineer your cumulative lifetime experience” may be more apt, and such wording carries with it no hint of plausibility.

No doubt Kurzweil is correct about the general technology pattern, but I think he goes far beyond what’s likely and reasonable.

The Hold Steady @ Berbati's Pan, 16-Oct-2005

The Hold SteadyGood show from The Hold Steady (out of Brooklyn, NY, with a distinct Minnesota background!) last night at Berbati’s Pan. TimCraig Finn is lead man, a sort of nerdy Springsteen with wordy tunes of his Minnesota past. While the words were pretty unintelligible (it was loud!), the band rocks solidly, so the songs come across. What also comes across is beer – whether it was being slopped around by TimCraig or thrown onto the band from the crowd. Two encores, much appreciated!

Here’s a good review of their last record, Separation Sunday from Pitchfork.

Openers The Constantines were fine if unremarkable, but the multimedia show from Tim Fife, complete with a presentation, was pretty funny.

"Calcutta" (1969)

Calcutta - Malle“Calcutta” is a snapshot of the city taken by Louis Malle in the late sixties. Not quite a documentary, but similar to one. For the first 20 minutes or so there is no narration at all, just shots of morning in the city, with men washing in the river. We get to see rich folks playing golf, very poor folks in slums with raw sewage running by their huts, lepers, Mother Teresa’s refuge for the very ill and poor, student demonstrations, religious ceremonies, a marriage, and much more.

At that time there were 8 million residents, and they mention that the projection is for 20 million in 30 years. (A quick bit of research says that the name of the city was officially changed to Kolkata in 2001, and population figures seem to vary; most reports seem to mention about 5 million in the city proper, with 13 million in the surrounding area).

"Atlantic City" (1980)

Atlantic City - Susan Sarandon
Last night I finally saw this film of my old home state, New Jersey, directed by Louis Malle. Ultimately the story of a woman and an older man who help each other out and finally make a break out of long-standing habits, both Susan Sarandon and Burt Lancaster are quite good in this film. I was surprised at how the plot revolves around fairly predictable crime film lines, yet it still seemed fresh somehow. Malle uses the city scape very effectively also, caught right in the turning point years after gambling was legalized.Bonus points for cheesy Robert Goulet singing scene!

Menomena Video!

Check out the first video from the Portland band Menomena! First enjoyable video I’ve seen in about 23 years.

It’s called “Cough Coughing

A Scanner Darkly coming in 2006

A Scanner Darkly movieJust a teaser for an upcoming film adaptation of PK Dick‘s classic drug novel A Scanner Darkly. Richard Linklater is directing, so I’m hopeful that this will be faithful to the spirit of the book (which is pretty twisted, with a character who is narc’ing on himself). Due out in March 2006.