Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Code Of Ethics

Is our legal code a formalization of an already existing moral code, or does the moral code develop from socialization of the legal code?

Neither, as it turns out. The code for our morality can be found in our genes.

Discussion over the why and whence of ethics in humans goes back to some of the earliest recorded history. In western civilization, discussions of values and ethics were regular fodder for Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and other philosophers of the time. Socrates separated two categories, facts and values, facts being things measurable and subject to objective agreement between two parties, and values being those things that two parties could disagree forever with no objective means to resolve who was correct. Aristotle believed ethics emerge from knowledge and rational thought.

Nothing much changed in the intervening years. In 1777, Philosopher David Hume wrote "There has been a controversy started of late...concerning the general foundation of morals; whether they be derived from reason, or from sentiment." Into the 20th century the arguments went back and forth: from the "Universal Principles" and rationalism found in Mill’s Greatest Happiness Principle and Kant’s Categorical Imperative, to the more emotionally based ethics of Anscome and Williams, back to the rationalist views of Piaget and Kohlberg, with some climbing out of the mud to try to define a forest with "meta ethics" that try to distinguish between metaphysical (moral objectivism and relativism) and psychological.

As you can see, although philosophers have made quite the study of ethics, the debate really hasn't moved from the "objective/universal/rational" vs. "subjective/relative/emotional" discussion.

It wasn't until the emergence of the brain sciences in the late 20th century that we finally started to break through this miscast paradigm and understand what truly drives human ethics and morality.

The answer - both, really, but it all starts with the emotions. Evolutionary biology has hardwired humans to have certain emotional responses to certain behaviors and concepts. Rational thought has help to rationalize these emotions into semi-logical frameworks of laws and ethics. But it is clear that it all begins with the hardwired, gut reactions that were selected for in humans because they offered a species survival advantage.

It's fascinating to read some of these studies and realize just how little we understand how we make decisions, and how much of our rational decision making is after-the-fact rationalization of decisions our brain (and gut, which has a semi-independent nerve structure) has already made.

A brother and sister, alone in a cabin, decide to experiment by having sex with each other. Both use contraception, so there is no chance of a pregnancy with a genetically inbred child. The never repeat the experiment and move on with their lives, and suffer no adverse psychological effects.

Is your reaction one of distaste or repugnance? Can you explain, rationally, why you feel this way? (This and other interesting "moral disgust" experiments - "He licked the dirty toilet", "He had sex with the carcass of an oven ready chicken" - have been performed by Jonathan Haidt, whose "intuitionist model" of moral decision making is backed by some good, sound science.1)

Joshua Green and others have also done fMRI on subjects while presenting clear moral dilemmas, with a twist - the scenarios have exactly the same results, but are presented differently. Here is an example.
A cable car breaks loose and is tearing down the tracks. Ahead on the track are five people who are stuck on the track, and will certainly die. Except you have a switch you can pull which will divert the car to a side track, where you see one person on the track. What do you do?

Most people pull the switch, trying to weigh the outcome of greater good, or good for the greater number.

Now try this one again with a slight twist.
Same cable car, same track. Same five people ahead who are about to die if the car continues on. But you are standing to the side, next to a very fat man, and realize if you push him onto the track in front of the car you could stop its advance and save the five people - but probably at the cost of the life of the fat man. Do you push him?

Most people's choice is to do nothing, letting events unfold without interference.

Looking at this as an equation, both scenarios have identical outcomes - either one person dies, or five people die, and it is your choice to decide which outcome. But each scenario results in different choices for most people.

Brain imaging has revealed that in the first scenario, the frontal lobes (associated eith "executive" decision-making) are engaged, but not the emotional centers. In the second scenario, a number of additional brain centers were engaged, including the anterior cingulate complex which is used to mediate conflicting mental states.2

Apparently pushing the fat man evokes too visceral of a response, which triggers some deep set emotional resistance to personally killing someone. Pushing the man with your own hands is much more of a personal murder than pulling a switch and watching the cable car do the killing - and as such, triggers the biological response wired into our brains.

Similar "moral" actions, such as biological altruism, moral outrage at unfair outcomes and behaviors, as well as many other tenets of moral decision making have been demonstrated in multiple experiments by a number of researchers to be the result of "unconscious" emotional decision making by particular brain centers.3 (A good article here as well but subscription required)

Why Should I Care?

Because a number of political and legal decisions are being made on the basis of "wisdom of repugnance"4 - the concept that if it "feels" wrong, it is, and should be outlawed. It is this standard that is being used to outlaw stem-cell research, Plan B (morning after pill), and abortion. By this "logic", mixed-race marriages and certain sexual acts between consenting adults would still be illegal. (See Nussbaum for a more detailed treatment on this subject).

Ignorance is not bliss.

We have a brain that has critical thinking faculties as well as emotional. Sure, let's take the input from the emotional - these responses got there for a reason. But lets use our critical faculties to decide if these responses are still appropriate for the culture and society in which we live today - not the one that existed 150,000 years ago.

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."
Gallileo Galilei, 1562-1642

1 What's hilarious is some people just can't move on - they continue to try to force these new facts into their old paradigm, and argue about whether Haidt's theories place him in the objectivist camp or the relativist. C'mon, people - it's time to stop the mental masturbation that has defined the field of philosophy and move on to some good ol' testable science!

2 Actually, it's a bit more complicated than this, but this is the gist. If you're interested in the specifics, here is a good paper.

3 In fact, researchers like Antonio Damasio make a case that these "emotional" centers in the brain are necessary to be a conscious sentient being at all - that without them, we wouldn't be either self-aware or conscious.

4 This is a term coined by Leon Kass, a bioethicist and adviser to President Bush. I suppose it's good that he recognizes that his decision making is based upon pure emotional reaction. But I would have hoped that, recognizing that, he would make an attempt to develop some rational arguments for this positions.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Human Condition

I continue to be fascinated with this question:
What is the definition of a Human?

Do a google search - you'll find very little of substance on this topic. Certain philosophy pages referencing Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibniz) skirt the subject of defining a human (as differentiated from, say, a dog). The President's Council on Bioethics published a collection of writings in 2003 called Being Human, which, though interesting, examines the human condition rather than make a solid attempt at defining what it means to be human. Certain blog posts, like this one.

Strange, isn't it? We base so many ethical and legal decisions on how we define a human, or a person, but we can't really agree on what that definition is.

1. A member of the genus Homo and especially of the species H. sapiens.

Oh, now I see. So being a human means being part of a taxonomical species, in this case Homo sapiens. Okay - what's a species?
n. pl. species

1. Biology.
1. A fundamental category of taxonomic classification, ranking below a genus or subgenus and consisting of related organisms capable of interbreeding.

So a human is any organism that can interbreed with another human. So if I replace the sperm cells of a german shepard with human spermatazoa, and the dog...well, you the dog now a human? (hey, it happens - you can find pictures on the internet...or so I hear...) How about the other way - if I castrate a male, or perform a hysterectomy on a female, are either still human? How about hermaphroditic or other reproductive abnormalities at birth - are these children human?

Consensus would say yes - these are all human. (Except for the dog. Although I know some people who treat their dog better than other humans...) So being a member of a self described group that can interbreed really isn't a good definition of human.

Perhaps we can define human in terms of differences with non-humans. What features do humans posess that no other life form posesses?

Is it having a body that "looks human"? What about a quadriplegic? Severe burn victims? How about a robot/android built in a human shape?

Is it having the humanly unique 46 chromosomes? Nope - unless we want to count Down Syndrome and other Trisomy victims as not human.

Ok - forget the physical for a minute. What about mental features? Here are a few that are commonly called out.

Communication - yet plenty of animals have been shown to have the ability to communicate. From the simple warning sounds of birds, to the more sophisticated sign language of apes, it's clear that humans don't have a monopoly on the ability to communicate. We do it better, you say? How about a severely autistic child? Or an advanced Alzheimer's victim. Still human? So it isn't this feature, or even degree, that provides a differentiator.

Cognitive manipulation of tools with intent - The tool users. Many species of monkey are tool users. Even certain birds have been identified as using tools. Cetaceans have even demonstrated cultural transmission of knowledge, including certain tool use (combining many "human" concepts of communication, tool use, modeling, intent, and cultural knowledge).

Self-awareness - the classic test for self-awareness is the mirror test. Put a mirror in front of a creature and watch whether or not the creature thinks they're looking at another creature or at themselves. "Human" children don't pass this test until about 15-24 months of age. Neither do human adults with certain right frontal lobe impairments. Chimpanzees and other apes, as well as dolphins, have been shown to be able to pass this test. No differentiators here.

Free Will - oh yes, next we'll be getting even more intangible, talking about the soul. (really...we will - it's the next paragraph). Assuming that there is such a thing as free will (a theory that has yet to have much supporting evidence one way or the other), do all humans exhibit free will? What about those who are on certain drugs which impair their ability to direct attention, or intention, or which cause the lack of resistance to direct commands? How about a girlfriend in a coma? And what about the band who wrote Girlfriend in a Coma? (And are you telling me that the little dog barking at the stick thrown into the middle of the pool isn't exhibiting free will, deciding whether or not to go after the stick they want, but not as much as they don't want to go in the pool - they can, mind you, they just don't feel like it then).

Having a Soul - Ok, perhaps you know you have a soul, and non-human organisms do not, and this is what distinguishes a human from a non-human. But can you prove it? Is there any physical evidence you can collect to show you have some "essence" unique to human kind? And even if you "know" you have a soul, can you provide any evidence that I do? (Or don't?) We can play the game of defining one intangible term with another, but that's all it would be - a game. Unless we can root a definition eventually in concrete terms, it has no real semantic value.

I love science fiction. There is certainly a lot of poor science fiction, just as there is a lot of poor romance, mystery, and other kinds of fiction written. But a well written science fiction story not only can provide all of the best features of any other genre, it also provides something that most genres do not - the exploration of ideas. Taking a concept, or a trend, or a hypothesis, and writing a story about the implications of that existence allows us to explore meaningful issues like what it means to be human, better than any other written form.

And in science fiction, the idea of what it means to be human has been explored a lot. Cyborgs, transfers of consciousness and memory to computers, post-human modifications, both mechanical and biological, abilities to control mental chemistry directly...all of these really screw with preconceived (and ill conceived) notions of how we define "human." I won't geek out and bore you with a list of good stories, other than to say that it is clear that if technology trends continue in the direction and speed at which they are now, it won't be long before we need to come up with a societal answer to this question.

Who is a human?

Are you?

Are "they"?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Question Authority

The slippery slope toward Storm Troopers in the street asking for your papers (and where you got those 'droids) just got a bit slicker and steeper.

On the 9th of December 2005, one U.S. citizen by the name of Deborah Davis will be arraigned in U.S. District Court for refusing to show identification to a federal security guard, while on a public bus going to her (non-government) job. Turns out the bus cuts through a complex of government buildings on its public route, and the local security believed they were authorized to demand identification papers from anyone passing through - whether or not said individuals actually worked in the complex, or had ever signed any documents (like government employees are asked to do) submitting to said searches.

(If I thought the Jose Padilla case was an early indicator of the erosion of personal freedoms and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, this one tends to raise the temperature a notch or two.)

Power corrupts. This trite saying is trite because everyone and their Aunt Minnie knows it to be true. It appears to be part of human nature. Power placed in the hands of human individuals, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably gets misused by those who are not completely pure of heart.

Okay, I went to school at UC Berkeley. "QUESTION AUTHORITY" was embedded the culture of the school. But I think most of you have had at least one experience (and probably a few) where a police officer, a bureaucrat, a teacher, or some other authority figure used the power of their position in a way that was less than

I remember the cop who pulled over my (black) friend because he was running through the parking lot (wearing a suit, and carrying his suit carrier, dashing to make his flight). When I caught up and questioned the officer as to why he was hassling my friend, the officer threatened to arrest me for obstruction of justice. Sure it wouldn't stick - but he could have arrested me, and it would have been on my record.

Now not all police are racist pricks like this guy. But even power in the hands of the well meaning but not well trained can lead to serious adverse outcomes. I remember one time I was visiting NORAD, and showed up slightly after the shift change. I was getting out of my car, in full uniform, when I found myself looking into the barrel of an M-16 held by a cocky 18-year old. I slowly presented ID, and he slowly lowered the weapon, but the facts that the gun was pointed at my head and his finger was actually on the trigger did make me a bit nervous. Ten minutes later, as I'm riding the bus down the tunnel, the ambulance comes screaming by in the other direction, as we hear on the radio that some guard managed to shoot another one accidentally with his M-16... (Life number 7 - check...)

But it's not just abuse of power by the authorities that is a danger. The climate of fear and compliance engendered by these controls creates the opportunity for exploitation.

A case in point. This little item from 2004 caught my attention at the time because it was such a clear example of what blind compliance with authority could lead to. Some perv managed to convince managers at multiple locations to strip search a coworker. Not only did the manager obey this anonymous, unseen "authority figure", the employee subjected to the strip search also complied on most occasions. Either the nation's McDonalds are filled with a strange mix of Nazis and Exhibitionists, or there's some strange common behavior in humans to obey authority figures - even when they know the action to be wrong. (And there were real world repercussions to obeying - many of these managers were later convicted on various charges, such as rape, kidnapping, assault - 7 were known to be convicted!)

I had been aware of Stanley Milgram's experiments with obedience to authority, wherein ordinary people obeyed an authority figure to give potentially lethal levels of electric shock to an innocent test subject. The Stanford Prison Experiment is another famous example of how ready we are to kow tow.

Fascinating work is also going on in marketing research around the world on how to persuade people to do something they wouldn't have thought of doing on their own. How to induce persuasion through seemingly innocuous techniques like asking questions, to reducing resistance to persuasion, the soft sciences are starting to exploit some of the hard sciences (evolutionary biology, neuroscience) to understand how the brain is wired, and how to short circuit it. (MacGyver, armed only with a paperclip and a battery, manages to convince the Storm Trooper that these aren't the droids he's looking for...)

It is tempting to cede more and more freedoms for the perception of more security. But unless you want a country where Junior Patrolman-in-training Billy Bob can tell you to produce your identity papers or be subjected to a strip search next to the french fry machine, it might be wise to pay attention to these trends - and question authority.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Lies, and Damn Lies

Did Bush Lie?
(about the reasons to invade Iraq?)

I doubt it. He didn't have to.

Was the administration looking for a reason to invade Iraq, even before 911?
The evidence would appear to support this.

Did the administration fabricate intelligence to justify the invasion of Irag?
Probably not. Fortunately for the administration, the intelligence business is messier than a 1-year old's diaper. Now mind you, I only worked in the intelligence community for about 5 years, but here is what I learned.

Pieces of data come in all the time - in fact, one of the largest problems in intelligence analysis is sorting through the massive pile of data to identify the essential indicators. (Kind of like browsing the internet - there's no end to the information, but picking out the useful bits can be tough).

While a "purist" approach would be bottoms up, most often intelligence analysis is done somewhat like scientific investigation. An analyst has a theory, then looks through the evidence for supporing information. A good analyst will also look through the information for evidence which refutes the theory. Given some amount of both, the next job is to "vet" the data sources for their likely veracity and reliability. To cut to the chase, if there appears to be multiple, separate, and vetted sources of information supporting a theory, the analyst will put forth the assessment.

This assessment will be combined with assessments from other analysts, and various compilations are put together (a given assessment can make its way into multiple reports, each of which has its own "editor" who determines what makes the cut).

One of these compilations is the daily presidential brief. The bad news about the daily presidential brief is that the "editor-in-chief" is the DCI (Director of Central Intelligence), which is a politically appointed position.

My theory of the failures in intelligence analysis that caused Colin Powell to make his case before the U.N. and George Tenet to declare a "slam dunk" is simply a case of group think.

It's been stated in grand jury depositions that on multiple occasions senior administration officials would go to the CIA to directly question analysts about whether or not they could find evidence of WMD (biological, nuclear). This "focused analysis" inevitably results in the finding of some supporting information, and a likely disinclination to counterbalance this with information which conflicts with the group assumptions. In intelligence, if you believe something is happening, you can almost always find information to support that belief. Ignoring the conflicting information is the sin here.

So...while some analysts clearly stated that there was conflicting information, some also stated that there were some indicators that Iraq may have active WMD programs. the editors, realizing what their bosses were looking for, would tend to reinforce the supporting information, and deprecate the conflicting. By the time you get to Tenet, the evidence looks pretty solid. And by the time you get to Bush, it's a "slam dunk."

I do blame the leadership for establishing the environment that leads to insular decision making and group think. I do the same against the corporations in which I work, where the strong desire by senior leadership to believe something leads to similar behaviors. Except that in the corporations where I work, these decisions don't usually end in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, tens of thousands of civilians, and the permanently diabling injuries of tens of thousands of others.

Did Bush lie?

I don't think so.

He just didn't live up to his responsibilities of good leadership.

And it is terribly disappointing to see the deep fear against reflecting on these decisions, and the strong compulsion to cut off discussion and debate about what to do about the war right now, a war which most agree has no criteria for "success", and no milestones for withdrawal.

(And it sickens me to see politicians who never served in combat, who in fact clearly used influence to avoid serving, calling those who did serve such as Rep. Murtha "cowardly" for wanting to withdraw from a failing military strategy and move on to a political solution. But I'm almost used to it - you rarely see veterans call other veterans cowards. It's almost always those intolerant jingoist hypocrites who never served who do so.)

Design Perfection

Continuing the discussion about Intelligent Design. In my last post, I tried not to enter the direct debate, but instead discuss whether or not ID can be considered a scientific theory at all. However, as a result of a lunch time discussion today, I'd like to offer up an analogy for the ID vs Evolution arguments.


Aside from being a girls best friend (and a guy's route to bankruptcy), diamonds are interesting because they can be made a couple of different ways.

One way, the most common way to date, is to have crystalline carbon deposits (such as graphite) deep in the earths crust, where it is subjected to high heat and pressure (over 1K degrees C, and anywhere from 13 - 100K atm). The crust is extruded over time due to plate tectonics and other geological forces to where the now raw diamonds are close enough to the surface of the earth to be discovered and mined. These processes are fairly well understood, and are replicable in a lab.

And in fact, this presents the second way diamonds are made - in a lab. Since the 1950's, the technology to produce a diamond, using graphite, heat, and pressure has existed. This was very expensive, and produced diamonds that were of poorer quality than those found via "natural" processes.

In 2003, Wired magazine reported on two start-up firms, one in Florida and the other in Boston, that had begun manufacturing gem-quality artificial diamonds. Supposedly the new artificial diamonds, particularly those made by chemical vapor deposition (CVD), are both cheap to produce. As of today, large (5-1600(!) carat), colorless, flawless diamonds can be made using this technology. And, unlike other "fake" diamonds such as cubic zirconium, these CVD diamonds are virtually indistinguishable from natural diamonds, even in the lab.

In fact, when distinguishable at all, it is only because the CVD based man-made diamonds are too perfect - more so than is found in natural diamonds.

So, to summarize, there are at least two ways to make a diamond, one using man-made processes (ie, intelligently designed), and one using natural processes. In this example, the intelligently designed diamond is usually more perfect than the one developed naturally.

So here is an interesting metaphor for the ID vs natural evolution debate. It can be posited that there are two ways to produce a cell, one via natural evolution, and one via intelligent design. However, given the inherent flaws in the design of a cell (wherein genetic replication can go awry, disparate energy mechanisms such as mitochondria and chloroplasts co-exist uneasily, and other odd features), if I were to guess, I would think that an intelligently designed cell would be a bit more "perfect".

Although, given the amount of poorly designed code I have seen in my career, I'm willing to entertain the possibility that the cell was "intelligently designed" by someone who just wasn't very good at it.

(This post, btw, uses the techniques that have comprised the majority of the "debate" around the ID vs. Evolution controversy - hyperbole, use of analogy instead of direct example, asserting a flaw in the opposing argument means that my argument must be right. All great fun, but not necessarily useful in advancing the state of knowledge of mankind...)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Irreducible Stupidity

The WSJ today (subscription required) had a front page article on the progress of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in infiltrating our education system, from K-12 and now the University system.
Intelligent-design courses have cropped up at the state universities of Minnesota, Georgia and New Mexico, as well as Iowa State, and at private institutions such as Wake Forest and Carnegie Mellon...professors with evangelical beliefs, including some eminent scientists, have initiated most of the courses and lectures, often with start-up funding from the John Templeton Foundation
The article itself somewhat meandered through this minefield, to no clear point. To also help set the record straight, it is really the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, not the John Templeton Foundation, that is the primary backer of the spread of ID. (In fact the John Templeton Foundation put out the following statement in response to the WSJ article. While I can't support the precepts of this foundation myself, I do think there are more insidious institutions out there who are not as clear in their purpose as this one).
The John Templeton Foundation has provided tens of millions of dollars in support to research academics who are critical of the anti-evolution ID position.
I'm all for debates of this nature in our college system. That's what colleges and universities are nominally for - the crucible for the refinement of ideas, which supposedly can burn off the dross of muddled thinking and allow the purest of tested ideas to emerge.

But when the players attempt to change the rules of the debate so that there are no longer any agreements as to even what the rules are, then its clear that they are no longer interested in the pursuit of truth - their goal is merely evangelism of their point of view.

To provide some background, the debate between Creationism (er, I mean Intelligent Design) and Evolution has been moved from the halls of philosophy to the halls of science. Advocates of Intelligent Design identify a number of areas of evolutionary theory where there is debate as to specifics, and said that because there is doubt in some area, there should be room for alternative theories which would explain these "gaps".

That alternative is the "theory" that there was a Creator that designed and implemented certain biological features (such as the basic "cell"), and that these features did not emerge from the mutation/selection forces of evolution. From the article:
With a magician's flourish, Thomas Ingebritsen pulled six mousetraps from a shopping bag and handed them out to students in his "God and Science" seminar. At his instruction, they removed one component -- either the spring, hammer or holding bar -- from each mousetrap. They then tested the traps, which all failed to snap.

"Is the mousetrap irreducibly complex?" the Iowa State University molecular biologist asked the class.

"Yes, definitely," said Jason Mueller, a junior biochemistry major wearing a cross around his neck.
What make a discussion the province of science vs. the provice of some Humanities discipline (such as comparative religion, sociology, philosophy)?

Any theory should be consistent with currently known facts. The primary characteristic of a scientific theory is that it must be testable, and testable in a way that it can be proven to be false. If you can't come up with some test of your theory that can be implemented by today's level of technology, then it isn't science - it is speculative fiction. If the test is designed to "prove" the theory, rather than disprove it, then it isn't a scientific test - it is a P.T. Barnum stunt to amaze and amuse (and to empty the pockets of the gullible public).
"No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American Public" - H.L. Mencken
(Mr. Mencken covered the "Scopes Monkey Trial" and developed a thorough disgust for Mr. William Jennings Bryan, Esq. during his attempt to embody the previous incarnation of Intelligent Design (i.e. Creationism) into our code of laws).

The primary problem with Intelligent Design being even discussed as a scientific theory is this - it isn't testable. Proponents use arguments like the above "irreducible complexity" argument to "prove" that there must have been a creator involved in the design and construction of cells (or eyes, or other "irreducibly complex" organisms).

The first question to ask is - what test can we make of ID that could prove it wrong? And therein lies the truth - we can't. This is the fundamental flaw with all "God Did It" arguments. There is no test that can be designed to possibly prove them wrong. ("So therefore, they must be right!: argue the illogical and irrational - and distinctly unscientific - scientists of ID).

I can posit an idea that says that a genetic structure that give rise to light sensitivity can mutate to provide a finer gradation of resolution. I can then take genetic structures that provide this biological feature, and attempt to show the mutation (or steps of mutation) that cause this to happen (usually something like a genetic sequence repeating multiple times, or the genetic sequence for the reading of that section of the DNA mutating to cause it to be used multiple times).

If I can show how this works, I have a theory. The theory is consistent with the facts that it can happen this way, and is a theory because it may explain how it happened in the past. If I can't even show this much, I don't have a theory. And if I can demonstrate that it isn't even possible to get from step A to step B, then I have a disproven theory. But this is all within the realm of science.

"God Did It" arguments are a cop out. This is an argument that, if we wanted to be lazy, we could invoke at any step of scientific investigation to call a halt and say "we're done. No more work to be done here." This is the equivalent of a map maker saying "Beyond Here There Lay Dragons", throwing up his hands, and saying "I'm sorry, Drake old boy, but that trip to explore beyond the known world just doesn't make any sense - there are just some things man was not meant to know."

Now, the explorers may get it wrong. Christopher Columbus couldn't do math, and couldn't even calculate a circumference that Erastosthenes has calculated thousands of years earlier. But he did explore, and he did "publish his results", and other (smarter) men used those results to develop theories of the world that were testable, and true.

Evolution has gone through similar tests through time, primarily because some of strong but ignorant faith find the concept an affront to their published doctrine. In fact, one could probably safely say that evolutionary theories have gone through more testing and scrutiny than most scientific theories, due to this very conflict.

And while there are still gaps in knowledge, and there are still healthy debates regarding aspects of evolutionary theory, the underpinnings of evolution are rock solid.

The underpinnings of Intelligent Design are rock solid as well, but not on a foundation of scientific theory. These are built on the pillars of faith, and are best left to the debating corner where they still discuss how many angels would fit on the head of a pin.

The scientific corner will hopefully continue on to identify working, testable theories upon which we can extend lives and the quality thereof through medicine, engineering, and biology.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Tolerating Intolerance

There have been a few events of recent days that make me fear for the Republic (Indivisible, and with Liberty and Justice for all). Below are Three Strikes against Tolerance that don't bode well for our growth in social and emotional maturity.

Strike One: Run 'em out on a rail...
In Des Moines, Iowa, passed a law in October which effectively bars anyone convicted of a sexually related offense with a minor from ever living within the city limits.

I'm curious - what's your first reaction to this? Mine was admittedly mixed.

I don't have much of a soft spot in my heart for child abusers and child sex offenders. I deeply believe that the breech of trust that is inherent in a child/adult relationship is one of the most heinous acts of evil humans can commit. To take a being of infinite potential and trust and shatter that promise is one of the saddest acts in this universe.

But I don't have a soft spot in my head, either, and having read some history, it wasn't hard to recognize a pattern that has been seen again and again - the stirring of deep fears and latent bigotry to begin the slippery slope that has lead to concentration camps and genocides.

"Oh, puullleeeeze! These perverts are the creepiest of the creeps! We don't want them anywhere near our children. Who cares what happens to them?"

There are a few things wrong with this. As with anytime we use a simple broad brush to paint a portrait of a group of humans, the idea that "all sex offenders are created equally loathesome" lacks the grey gradation of real life complexity.
  • Are all the Catholic priests that couldn't resist using children as their sexual outlet because their religion forces them to act against the nature God gave them equivalent with the father who raped his daughter's from the time they were five till the time they ran away from home to live as street prostitutes? (Ok, maybe they are - let me try a different one...)

  • Is the seventeen year old who had sex with his seventeen year old girlfriend, but was convicted of Sex With A Minor because her father pressed charges, equivalent to the emotionally dead pathological serial child rapist?

They are with this law - neither one can live in Des Moines. Police have actually gone house to house to round up the registered sex offenders (the one's who did their time, some as much as 20 years ago without a single conviction since). They have been told to get out of town or be arrested. Some, with nowhere to go and no resources to move, have just turned themselves into the police and are now being held in jail.

And now that Des Moines has such a law, the unicorporated counties around Des Moines are passing similar "NIMBY" laws (because the ones who can make it out of Des Moines will be going there next). And the counties around these counties are starting to discuss the same, in a domino effect that has no limit.

Where do you want to go today? If any of you ever in your life had sex with someone under 18 (even as a randy teen yourself), it better not be Iowa. (And that's Today. Tomorrow, I'm not sure what's left. France?)


There is a recently published book by this name by James W. Loewen. I first found Dr. Loewen with his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your High School History Textbook Got Wrong, an interesting read that attempts to take the "embarrassing blend of bland optimism, blind nationalism, and plain misinformation" found in our nations history texts and identify the most blatant misstatements and ommissions.

In his latest book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Dr. Loewen researches and documents the age-long and little discussed existence of towns and suburbs whose citizens and governments practice not so hidden racism to keep their communities "pure" of non-white residents.
When I began this research, I expected to find about 10 sundown towns in Illinois (my home state) and perhaps 50 across the country. Instead, I have found more than 440 in Illinois and thousands across the United States.

After reading a couple of articles on this in the WSJ and elsewhere (here and here),
I went through my Kubler-Ross "Shock, Denial, Anger..." grief cycle (hoping I would never find my way through the spectrum to Acceptance).

O. M. G. !!! In this day and age, to see blatant, overt, condoned racism so widespread and prevalent. Strike Two for Tolerance.

Strike Three: Because we just hate you...

Today's papers in Texas displayed the celebration of the victory for the forces for Good Marriage over Evil. Proposition 2 on the Texas ballot outlaws "any legal status identical or similar to marriage" for anyone other that "one man and one woman."

Created by a disturbingly large majority of lawmakers, and passed by a disturbingly large majority of voters, the law's intent was to prohibit "them gay people" from getting married.


The muddle of our common law conjoins a religious ceremony with a host of "implied" legal relationships (appointment of guardians and arrangement of rights relating to hospital visitation, medical power of attorney, community property, and the entitlement to proceeds of life insurance policies to name a few). When people get married, these legal rights and obligations are automatically granted by the state.

"Marriage" itself is a loosely defined term - is it the civil license or the religious ceremony? Performed by who? Can any so called "church" leader perform a legal marriage? If my girlfriend and I rub blue mud in our navels while chanting "I bind with thee" three times according to the precepts of the Church of The Holy Slime, can we get a marriage license? Is proof that such a ceremony occurs sufficient to have the implicit legal rights granted?

"Man" and "Woman" are also not well defined. What is a "Man?" Merely a person with external genitalia? Must that external genitalia be capable of impregnating a Woman? Must a "Woman" be capable of bearing children? Many poor couples who can do neither one nor the other will be further saddened to hear that perhaps they can't be legally married, either.

Or if not physical, is it a genetic definition? If a person born with an X and Y chromosome has a sex change operation, is that person a Man or a Woman under this law? If a person is born with two X and one Y (it happens), are they a Man or Woman under this law?

With such ill-defined terms, does this law really mean anything??

This poorly written, ill-defined constitutional amendment exists for one reason only - to go out of the way to humiliate, intimidate, and discriminate against a group of people that are once again painted with the broad brush of bigotry and intolerance.

You're Out!!

It is only fitting that we use the remarkably over-simplified and intolerant "Three Strikes and You're Out" law as our sentencing guideline for our collective behavior. To paraphrase the prevailing opinion...
I don't care if you didn't realize this was your third strike. I don't care if each offense in and of itself may have not been a big deal to you. I don't care if there may be a case a mistaken identify and that it wasn't you specifically that committed these crimes against Tolerance.
I don't care. You don't look just like me, you don't talk just like me, you act in a way I don't choose to comprehend, and you frighten me because I don't understand you.

We don't want to see your kind around here.

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. - H.L. Mencken

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Why Use Open Source Software?

I think most debates around open source vs proprietary software selection misses the main points. Probably because like most debates whose outcome effects large company pocketbooks, the field rapidly becomes obscured with FUD bombs from both sides.

But in the software world, there aren't many paradigm changing shifts on the scale as the one open source is making available, so the terms of the debate should be framed be "We, The Little People" who don't have an large equity interest in the outcome, but do have a strong career interest in it.

Why look at using open source at all?

You'll hear cost used quite a bit as a reason to use open source products rather than proprietary commercially licensed products. And in some cases it is true that an open source product may have a lower TCO than a comercial product. It really depends upon the product license, the maintanance and support requirements and costs, and the organizational familiarity, readiness and use of the product.

In my opinion, the primary advantage of open source over commercial is the level of control and risk reductions provided to the development organization. The primary goal of a software products organization is to get feature/functionality at high quality out the door as quickly as possible. In any development effort, there will be one or more obstacles that a 3rd party product creates - it may be a bug, or it may be a feature that doesn't quite work as expected, but regardless the developers are slowed until a fix or workaround is found.

With proprietary products, the team is at the mercy of both the maintenance and support terms, as well as the responsiveness of the vendor. For smaller companies (like us), the responsiveness of a large vendor can be a challenge. I've seen projects that ended up devoting as much as 30% additional effort to work around a fix that they couldn't get from the vendor in time to make product release dates.

With open source products, the first approach is identical to that of proprietary products - go to the maintenance and support available, and/or go to the user community boards and google for help. But if help isn't forthcoming, the team has the option to actually go in an fix the code to work as required and move on. (Whether or not they donate the fix to the open source community or not is a separate decision, although it is usually to their advantage to have the fix put into the next open source release).

Additionally, the vendor viability risks go away. (Purchasing products from smaller vendors always carries a risk that the vendor may go out of business, or stop supporting the product. This is usually attempted to be covered by some form of source code escrow agreement, although most of these are impractical given that the vendor's source code usually isn't in a form that can be picked up and used by someone else.) Open source products provide source code from day one, eliminating this risk.

So - why use open source? Because it may be cheaper, but it definitely reduces the risk of unforseen and uncorrectable delays in product development.

But using open source opens up lots of risks that you don't have with commercial software, right?

Not necessarily. Let's look at the primary areas typically identified as problems with open source.

Intellectual Property (IP)
All commercial and open source license agreements provide some level of "right to use", as opposed to ownership rights. The restrictions vary by agreement. The requirements around the source code rights vary as well. For instance, Microsoft now offers some source code access licenses, but the user is not allowed to modify the code in any way.

All open source licenses allow the user to modify the source code in any way the user sees fit, but vary on the obligation to share those code modifications. Some require that any code modifications be made available for free, some require that they be made available, but a fee can be charged. Many don't require that any modifications be made available to anyone other than the user. And none require that code built that *uses* the open source without modification be made available to anyone other than the user.

Indemnification, Limitation of Liability, Warranty, etc.
Commercial licenses usually offer some level of indemnification and limitaiton of liability, although if it is not a high priced perpetual license deal (such as an OS or desktop app), the vanilla End User license is typically used (and is usually pretty sparse in these areas). For open source, usually a maintanance and support contract also offers some level of similar protection here. Also, some large vendors offer specific indemnification programs for major open source products. (HP offers an Indemnification Program. So does Novell and Red Hat. And you can even buy "indemnification insurance" from companies like OSRM) As for warranties? Hah - good luck. Over 90% of commercial software licenses use warranty language of "as-is". At least with open source, you can look at the engine of that car instead of just the exterior.

Maintenance & Support
Commercial products provide some level of maintenance and support, which varies quite broadly in terms. Open source products do not inherently come with maintanance or support, except the "ad hoc" variety provided by the community of users and developers. However, for many popular open source products, large 3rd party vendors do offer a maintenance and support contract that is on par with any commercial version.

  • HP, IBM, Novell offering support for both open source products and "stacks" of applications vetted to work together.

  • HP has "certified" mopre than 200 open source apps for HP's servers

  • Novell too is certifying a number of open source apps for HP Blades, and offers technical support for a number of apps. ("Validated Configuration Program).

  • Red Hat testing and certifying its products with EMC, Oracle, Veritas, etc.

  • New startups SpikeSource, SourceLabes, Greenplum are being VC funded to offer certification and testing for a wide range of open source "application stacks".

Is Mike the only one with these crazy ideas?

Try googling - you'll see. (Or maybe start here with this recent panel of CIOs...they know of which they speak)

So should we just always use open source?

No. Open source products should go through the exact same evaluations as proprietary products. In fact, they should be evaluated right along side proprietary products. The same issues for selection still apply:

  • Feature/Function Fit

  • Cost (initial purhcase, training, and ongoing support and scalability options)

  • Use Rights (Can you legally use it in the ways you need?)

  • Support (both from a vendor, as well as an assessment of the size of the user community. Most developers will tell you that they get more answers from a large user community for a product than they do from the vendor - whether that product is proprietary or open source. God Bless the Internet and Google.)

  • "Vendor" viability (will the product be around?)

  • etc.

The question should be "Should we use open source products that compare favorably to their proprietary counterparts in these criteria?"

And the answer to this is yes - we would be foolish to give up the level of control and risk reduction just to hypothetically "play it safe" with a proprietary product.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

In [blank] We Trust

I saw the move "Good Night, and Good Luck" last night, which attempts to portray a brief period in history where Edward R. Murrow, a celebrated and trusted news reporter, exposed "the junior senator from Wisconsin" Joseph McCarthy's communist witch-hunts to the light of public scrutiny.

It was a decent movie, with very few cheap theatrical tricks to maintain the audience's attention, relying instead on the fascinating situation and material itself to hold interest. While it was clear that Director Clooney was emphasizing certain parallels with some of today's political demagoguery and scare-mongering, it was nonetheless compelling and thought provoking.

Aside from the obvious thoughts ("wow, politicians haven't changed much, and clearly the tactics of creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt, combined with innuendo and guilt by association, work as well today as they did then"), there were some more depressing thoughts as well. (More depressing?? Hold on - you'll see...)

There are a number of obvious examples where today's politicians and special interest groups use half-truths, innuendo, and fear mongering to influence the American public into acting the way they want (or more usually, not acting at all so that those in power can continue).
  • Tom Delay having a judge removed from his case because the judge had in prior years contributed to the DNC and

  • Ronnie Earl using as many grand juries as it took to get a charge against Delay that would stick

  • Dick Cheney using classified information and his faithful assistant Scooter to expose an undercover CIA agent to deflect attention from the crumbling facade covering the justification for the invasion of Iraq

  • Partisan pundits of both sides using only supporting facts (or made up ones - who ever remembers the retractions?) that supports their case of the day (even if that case may be 180 degrees out from the case made the year before - who remembers who said what a year ago?).

While these may not be the most stark examples, they were no further away than today's news - these tactics are so common that there isn't a day goes by where you can't pluck as many or more from the ether. No one in The Power Game is clean, and all have found that these tactics work to deflect, confuse, and divert attention from the real issues and facts.

The more depressing thought that "Good Night" evoked is this - Where is the Murrow for today? Where is investigative journalism? What person has established enough of a record of veracity and trust that they can take on some of the most powerful liars and cheats in the world, and win in the court of public opinion? Where is the pen still mightier than the sword?

As I've said before (La, La, La...I can't hear you), the plethora of information channels means that most people get their information from sources that are already slanted to their perspective, so no counter arguments or facts are heard.

Reporting has become entertainment, and the resulting popularity contest means that no pool reporter would dare jeopardize their pool pass by calling out blatant hypocrisy when they see it - and they see it every week. But to report on it would mean the end of their access, and therefore the end of their public exposure and climb to celebrity.

We have Murdochs instead of Paleys that own the media channels; all news departments are owned by entertainment companies; punditry (which is cheap) has replaced investigative journalism (which is expensive, and hard).

McCarthy was just born a generation too early - today, he could be a contender for President.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Life Eternal

As genetic sequencing and molecular biology make technological strides, it seems clear that techniques to extend the human lifespan are not far off. Led by researchers like Cynthia Kenyon and companies such as Elixir Pharmaceuticals, discoveries around the daf-2, daf-16, and other genes, and understanding their effect on the insulin and IGF-1 pathways should allow the identification of compounds in humans that not only extend natural lifespan, but make that lifespan one of youthfulness and vigor. (Although given the FDA process for drug approval, even compounds identified today may be a decade away from actual commercial use).

I happen to think this is a good thing, which I'll elaborate on in a minute. What is somewhat disappointing (although not a surprise) is that none of these mutations or compounds discovered so far appear to reverse the effects of aging. They only slow down a number of the processes which cause the decline and cellular damage associated with aging. Which brings up an interesting question - which generation will be the last to have to suffer the decay and depredation of aging?

In fact, it is likely that there will be three categories of people once anti-aging treatments are available: those who are young enough that they can life a very long lifetime with youthful bodies; those who are too old for the treatments to do much good, since the majority of the damage has already been done; and those in between, who must decide if it is worthwhile to live another 100 years if you have to do it in the body of a 50-60 year old. (Knowing the way we already spend inordinate amounts of money to medically extend life of those who are nearing its end, my guess is that everyone - even those who really wouldn't benefit much - will want the treatments).

There will be the inevitable debate about who should get the treatments (are you sponge worthy?) and whether anyone should get the treatments (I can't wait to see the heads exploding among those whose belief in the "sanctity of human life, regardless of quality" conflicts with their beliefs against genetic engineering and that "man should not play god" in extending lifespans. Poor Pope - he may long for the good old days of abortion, birth control, and child rape issues.)

Like all such treatments, in the beginning it will only be available to the wealthy (because that is just how capitalism applied to medicine works). Depending upon the power structure in place at the time, this could easily tilt into an inverse power curve, where the few who are wealthy and powerful get the treatment and have the wealth and power to ensure that only they get it (and because they don't die anytime soon, continue to accrue wealth and power until there is an enormous disparity between the 1% oligarchs and the rest of the world).

But given the emotional charge associated with wanting to live (after all, evolutionary biology selects for those who have a strong will to live), even if this sort of power play were attempted, the sheer numbers of those who would demand the treatment would ensure that it's use would expand, even if it were at the point of a revolutionary's gun. I recognize that using examples from today, where large parts of the world don't even get access to cheap life saving vaccines and antibiotics, it is very unlikely that everyone would get this treatment. But the percentages would probably be in the 40-60% range at least.

So what would it mean to live in a world where many (most) of the people could live twice as long as they do today, where all 150-200 years are youthful, potentially productive years? There are a lot of good science fiction stories which explore the possible scenarios that could unfold here, from the dystopic...
The chairs were puffy, overstuffed, and swaddlingly comfortable. Old people's chairs. They were the kind of chairs that top-flight furniture designers had begun making back in the 2070s, when furniture designers suddenly realized that very old people possessed all the money in the world, and that from now on very old people were going to have all the money until the end of time.
-Bruce Sterling, Holy Fire (1996).
to the optimistic...
Although long-life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing. It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough for love.
- Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough For Love (1973)

There are a lot of non-fiction books on the subject too (like Fantastic Voyage - Ray Kurzweil et al). Heck, this theme has been around forever it seems (see Tithonus from Greek Mythology).

I've blogged before about the possibilities inherent in a longer lifespan. And given my theories about the purpose of life being more life, more complex and intelligent life, then a longer lifespan should only add to those possibilities.

A longer lifespan means more time and experience to bring to a problem. Imagine if some of the greats of the past (scientists, artists, inventors) had longer to work on their ideas, and more time to work through the mistakes.

A longer lifespan relieves the pressure to do so much in so little time. Who knows how differently some of the most ambitious men of the past might have felt if they didn't feel they only had a limited time to make their mark on the world? Who knows how many of those that turned out evil would have made their way into power if they were in the company of those who had memories long enough to see and remember the results of demagoguery, fear, and incitement to violence.

A longer lifespan allows for second (and third, and forth) chances in life, to learn from mistakes, to improve.

A longer lifespan means a continuity of civilization, the ability to build on the shoulders of contemporaries as well as those who came before, the chance to move into a new phase of human growth and maturity.
It's a good thing.
- Martha Stewart