President caves to the Russians

President Obama cancelled the planned missile shield that we had promised Poland and Czechoslovakia, capitulating to the demands of Vladimir Putin. See Dismay in Europe as Obama ditches missile defence – Times Online .

The decision was relayed to the governments of the Czech Republic and Poland both by Mr Obama himself, in telephone calls last night, and by US officials visiting the region. The President assured both governments that the decision would not compromise their security.

But it clearly prompted some dismay in Central and Eastern Europe, where the Bush plan had been seen as an effective guarantor of US support for the fledgling democracies of the old Soviet empire. It will also send a chill through Russia’s neighbours.

“This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence,” said Mirek Topolanek, the former Czech Prime Minister. “It puts us in a position where we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that it welcomed reports of the US decision but would wait for official confirmation before making a detailed response. A spokesman said: “Such a development would be in line with the interests of our relations with the United States.”

Ironically, the President made his announcement on the 70th anniversary of the Russian invasion of Poland.

The man who saved a billion lives

The man who solved the world’s food problem, Norman Borlaug, died at 95. His applications of agricultural science launched the so-called “green revolution,” not in the sense of environmentalism but in growing an abundance of green, productive plant life.

Scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug rose from his childhood on an Iowa farm to develop a type of wheat that helped feed the world, fostering a movement that is credited with saving up to 1 billion people from starvation.

Borlaug, 95, died Saturday from complications of cancer at his Dallas home, said Kathleen Phillips, a spokesman for Texas A&M University where Borlaug was a distinguished professor.
“Norman E. Borlaug saved more lives than any man in human history,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. “His heart was as big as his brilliant mind, but it was his passion and compassion that moved the world.”

He was known as the father of the “green revolution,” which transformed agriculture through high-yield crop varieties and other innovations, helping to more than double world food production between 1960 and 1990. Many experts credit the green revolution with averting global famine during the second half of the 20th century and saving perhaps 1 billion lives.

Now there is a life that made a difference. Food shortages continue, of course, but the causes are nearly always political and economic, not because of limited food production. Lars Walker notes a Lutheran connection.

Bob Dylan as the voice of your navigation device

Navigation device manufacturers are talking to Bob Dylan about using his voice to give the GPS directions:

The enigmatic troubadour said on his satellite radio program that he is negotiating with two car manufacturers to be the voice of their in-car navigation systems. Insert your own Dylan-lyric pun here about “no direction home” or “there must be some way out of here” or “how many roads . . . .”

The wonder of this might not be that Dylan is selling out — he has already done that by appearing in ads for Victoria’s Secret, Pepsi, Cadillac and others, and he’ll be singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” on a forthcoming Christmas album — but that his famously raspy and mumbly voice would be suited for directions-challenged drivers.

Dylan himself wasn’t even so sure about that. On his BBC radio show he gave listeners a preview of his would-be GPS vocals: “Left at the next street. No, right. You know what? Just go straight.”

He also noted: “I probably shouldn’t do it because whichever way I go, I always end up at one place — on Lonely Avenue. Luckily, I’m not totally alone. Ray Charles beat me there.”

Can anyone explain how the voices are connected to the computerized directions? Would Bob have to read the names of every street in America, with then the computer providing the association and the intonation? Would this gig mean just reading a long list of words that don’t go together, sort of like some of his songs? (I had assumed that the voices were all computer-generated, but I have since learned that, as here, actual human beings do the talking and the back-street driving.) But I can’t imagine how that can be made to work. Somebody please explain.

Also, along the lines of this first paragraph, can you think of other Dylan lines that would fit this project?

Coming in December: Cinematic revolution?

Have you heard about this? The headline says it all:Avatar: How James Cameron’s 3D film could change the face of cinema forever:

If you’ve had previous experience of 3D, your impression will probably be one of a flattish image with the occasional object ‘flying’ at you’.

But these advances are different – the entire screen has depth, taking on the appearance of a window through which the viewer is watching a ‘world’ on the screen, with a distinct foreground and background, rather than a flat, moving painting

In effect, the cinema screen becomes a theatre stage.

There’s still at least one throw-back to the ‘early days’ of 3D – viewers will need to wear glasses to get the illusion.

However these are not the red and green cardboard cut-outs you used to get free with Sugar Puffs before Comic Relief.

These are polarising glasses, untinted, which do not cause the headaches experienced in the past, or more importantly rely on frequent ‘pans’ of the camera to make the image appear in 3D.

Each lens has a different filter , which removes different part of the image as it enters each eye. This gives the brain the illusion it is seeing the picture from two different angles, creating the 3D effect.

The film depicts a battle between Earth and the alien civilisation from Pandora – but who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?

Continuing to develop new technology as he went along, Cameron also devised a ‘virtual camera’, a hand-held monitor that allowed him to move through a 3D terrain.

This, Cameron said, allowed him to create ‘the ultimate immersive media’, which he anticipates will exceed any and all expectation.

Here is the trailer, unfortunately in mere 2-D:

The Wizard of Waukesha

That’s what they called Les Paul in Wisconsin, the man who invented the solid body electric guitar and multi-track recording. He died august 13 at 94. The man who made rock ‘n’ roll and much of today’s popular music possible could also play. Here he is. After he shows what he can do with a guitar, there are some photos of his growing up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, just outside of Milwaukee, as well as an interview in which he tells how he got started fiddling with electronics and music.

Computer with consciousness?

A British newspaper has published an intriguing bit of speculation. From Are we on the brink of creating a computer with a human brain?:

What is it, in that three pounds of grey jelly, that gives rise to the feeling of conscious self-awareness, the thoughts and emotions, the agonies and ecstasies that comprise being a human being?

This is a question that has troubled scientists and philosophers for centuries. The traditional answer was to assume that some sort of ‘soul’ pervades the brain, a mysterious ‘ghost in the machine’ which gives rise to the feeling of self and consciousness.

If this is the case, then computers, being machines not flesh and blood, will never think. We will never be able to build a robot that will feel pain or get angry, and the Blue Brain project will fail.

But very few scientists still subscribe to this traditional ‘dualist’ view – ‘dualist’ because it assumes ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are two separate things.

Instead, most neuroscientists believe that our feelings of self-awareness, pain, love and so on are simply the result of the countless billions of electrical and chemical impulses that flit between its equally countless billions of neurons.

So if you build something that works exactly like a brain, consciousness, at least in theory, will follow.

In fact, several teams are working to prove this is the case by attempting to build an electronic brain. They are not attempting to build flesh and blood brains like modern-day Dr Frankensteins.

They are using powerful mainframe computers to ‘model’ a brain. But, they say, the result will be just the same.

Two years ago, a team at IBM’s Almaden research lab at Nevada University used a BlueGene/L Supercomputer to model half a mouse brain.

Half a mouse brain consists of about eight million neurons, each of which can form around 8,000 links with neighbouring cells.

Creating a virtual version of this pushes a computer to the limit, even machines which, like the BlueGene, can perform 20trillion calculations a second.

The ‘mouse’ simulation was run for about ten seconds at a speed a tenth as fast as an actual rodent brain operates. Nevertheless, the scientists said they detected tell-tale patterns believed to correspond with the ‘thoughts’ seen by scanners in real-life mouse brains.

It is just possible a fleeting, mousey, ‘consciousness’ emerged in the mind of this machine. But building a thinking, remembering human mind is more difficult. Many neuroscientists claim the human brain is too complicated to copy.

Markram’s team is undaunted. They are using one of the most powerful computers in the world to replicate the actions of the 100billion neurons in the human brain. It is this approach – essentially copying how a brain works without necessarily understanding all of its actions – that will lead to success, the team hopes. And if so, what then?

Well, a mind, however fleeting and however shorn of the inevitable complexities and nuances that come from being embedded in a body, is still a mind, a ‘person’. We would effectively have created a ‘brain in a vat’. Conscious, aware, capable of feeling, pain, desire. And probably terrified.

And if it were modelled on a human brain, we would then have real ethical dilemmas. If our ‘brain’ – effectively just a piece of extremely impressive computer software – could be said to know it exists, then do we assign it rights?

Would turning it off constitute murder? Would performing experiments upon it constitute torture?

And there are other questions, too, questions at the centre of the nurture versus nature debate. Would this human mind, for example, automatically feel guilt or would it need to be ‘taught’ a sense of morality first? And how would it respond to religion? Indeed, are these questions that a human mind asks of its own accord, or must it be taught to ask them first?

Thankfully, we are probably a long way from having to confront these issues. It is important to stress that not one scientist has provided anything like a convincing explanation for how the brain works, let alone shown for sure that it would be possible to replicate this in a machine.

So if this can’t be achieved, I suppose that would be proof of the existence of the soul. If it could be achieved, would that undermine the Christian faith? I don’t think it would. The Bible emphasizes the resurrection of the body, so I have no problem with the notion that consciousness inheres in our physical makeup, even if we also have some immaterial spirit that survives in some manner with God. A conscious computer would not be human, of course. It would lack the Divine Image. But it would bear our image.

Say a conscious computer could be built, one that moreover had will, feelings, and a moral sensibility. Suppose it even had a religious impulse. Would it need to be evangelized? Or would it be unfallen?