Technology Review issues SENS Challenge

Jason Pontin at Technology Review is now offering big bucks to any working biogerontologist willing to debunk Aubrey de Grey in print in its September issue.  Link: The SENS Challenge:

If de Grey is so wrong, why won’t any biogerontologists say why he
is wrong? If he is totally nuts, it shouldn’t be so hard to explain the
faults in his science, surely?

One possible explanation for the silence of biogerontologists is
that criticizing SENS would require time and effort—and that working
scientists are too busy to waste time on something so silly. Another
explanation (one obviously preferred by de Grey) is that
biogerontologists reject SENS out of hand without examining its

Technology Review thinks it would be useful to determine
which of the two explanations is correct. If SENS has some validity,
then we should take it seriously. Because if we can significantly
extend healthy life, we will have to ask—should we?

This should be interesting.  Hopefully he finds a taker.  But will it satisfy the "Fight Aging" crowd?  Probably not.  This is not a wholly rational quest they’re on; it’s religious.  As Pontin put it, "many
technologists who cannot believe in a supernatural afterlife want to
believe the possibility of indefinite life through science."

In a sense, all religions are about learning to face death.  Scientism is the religion espoused by many people today, either explicitly or implicitly, and perhaps belief in a "scientific cure for death" is an inevitable part of scientism as religion.

Hillary Clinton vs. Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson (Everything Bad Is Good for You) takes on Hillary in a rather snarky op-ed in the form of a letter in today’s LA Times (Link: Hillary vs. the Xbox: Game over).

He’s probably correct on some points (sure, the politicians may not have entirely unselfish motives for intervening in the Grand Theft Auto fiasco — do they ever?).  But he comes off as being opposed to any study of the effects of video games on children.  We should apparently just read his book and accept that "the kids are all right" and not worry about it.

From the article:

Your current concern is over explicit sex in "Grand Theft Auto: San
Andreas." Yet there’s not much to investigate, is there? It should get
rated appropriately, and that’s that.

True — the software company screwed up, and they should be dealt with the same way as a movie studio or TV network when they skirt the ratings system.  Clinton’s July 20th statement seems in agreement with this.

But there’s more to your proposed
study: You want to examine how video games shape children’s values and
cognitive development.

Kids have always played games. A hundred
years ago they were playing stickball and kick the can; now they’re
playing "World of Warcraft," "Halo 2" and "Madden 2005." And parents
have to drag their kids away from the games to get them to do their
algebra homework, but parents have been dragging kids away from
whatever the kids were into since the dawn of civilization.

The fact that kids have always played games doesn’t make it any less worthy a topic for social scientists to study, does it?  Determining how or if "video games shape children’s values and
cognitive development" seems like a good research topic.  We should know more about it, especially when you consider that games are in fact getting more violent, and that desensitization and conditioning are real psychological phenomena.  Why not care about what games do to kids?  Maybe the study will even prove you right?

any sensible investigation into video games must ask the "compared to
what" question. If the alternative to playing "Halo 2" is reading "The
Portrait of a Lady," then of course "The Portrait of a Lady" is better
for you. But it’s not as though kids have been reading Henry James for
100 years and then suddenly dropped him for Pokemon.

Here Johnson seems to be drifting off into his book… Is this relevant?  Surely there’s a proper theoretical context in which to place video game studies, and competent researchers will consider that.  (Politicians may not, of course.)

Perhaps, Sen.
Clinton, your investigation should explore the theory that violent
games function as a safety valve, letting children explore their
natural aggression without acting it out in the real world.

I agree completely — the study should investigate the "safety valve" idea as well as others.  Why wouldn’t it?  The National Institute of Child Health & Human Development is not a political organization, as far as I know.  The researchers who would be doing the study are probably close colleagues of the Duke researchers Johnson refers to.

Isn’t more serious research to answer these questions a good thing for both camps?

More on this topic in an earlier post: Violence and Video Games.

See also the discussion at Steven Johnson’s blog: Open Letter To Hillary.

More $100 Laptop Discussion

Over at WorldChanging there’s a huge continuing discussion about Nicholas Negroponte’s $100 Laptop for kids in third world countries.

[…] the evidence
is strong — and getting stronger
all the time — that cheap, functionally-ubiquitous information and
communication devices help to accelerate development.

Link: WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Negroponte’s Hundred Dollar Laptop, via SmartMobs.

From what I can tell, nobody has yet presented evidence to support the claim that laptops will help these kids learn better than if they were given better books, teachers, or other more traditional development aid.  This is a crucial question, yet people seem to believe it on faith.

On a side note, I think it’s interesting that MIT has the following disclaimer at the top of their $100 Laptop Project web page:

Please note: these laptops are not in production.
They are not—and will not—be available for purchase
by individuals.

Obviously if somebody makes a cheap, rugged, laptop designed for a long life, everyone will want one!  How will they deal with this?  How will they prevent a black market from emerging that sells these back to Americans?

Previous posts by me about the $100 laptop are here and here.

The downside to all those shuttle cameras

There’s an excellent article in the New York Times today about how the increased monitoring for damage to the shuttle comes with its own risks.  (Link: Intense Hunt for Signs of Damage Could Raise Problems of Its Own – New York Times.)

[…] all this inspection may be a mixed blessing. The more NASA looks for damage, engineers and other experts say, the more it will find. And the risks of overreaction to signs of damage while the shuttle is in orbit may be just as great as the risks of playing them down.

"How do you distinguish – discriminate – between damage which is critical and damage which is inconsequential?" asked Dr. David Wolf, an astronaut who spent four months aboard the Russian space station Mir. "We could be faced with very difficult decisions, in part because of all this additional information that we will be presented with."


Dr. Wolf, the astronaut, who has a medical degree, likened the problem to that facing doctors, with their increasingly powerful diagnostic tools.

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine
at Dartmouth and an expert on medical diagnosis, agreed. "A lot of what
we’re calling disease now never becomes clinically apparent during the
life of the patient," he said. "Everything you find is less
threatening, but you can never say anything is a zero threat."

NASA faces a similar challenge, he said: "I’m sure they want to do the
best they can. But the harder they look, they’ll find more things."

On the internet they do know you’re a cat

From the wacky invention department:  Salon has a short article today about PawSense, software that detects when your cat is walking on your keyboard.  Excerpt:

Are you worried that your cat is trying to delete your operating system? Does the report you stayed up all night writing contain literary gems like "ffeswwa" and "jlkikkjikiklkuh"? Has your cat made purchases on eBay?

Then you need PawSense, software that identifies and blocks your kitty’s keyboard tap-dancing. When it senses little cat feet on the keyboard, PawSense brings up a screen that says "Cat-Like Typing Detected." Should you accidentally engage in catlike typing yourself, the screen has a box where you can type in "human" and the computer will let you proceed. PawSense was invented by Chris Niswander after his sister’s cat crashed her computer. He was awarded the IgNobel Prize for Computer Science in 2000 for his invention.

Link: Life | Cat got your keyboard?

Harry Potter & The Vengeful Nerds (ArtsJournal)

Reading_someone_3From ArtsJournal:

The new Harry Potter book is available in dozens of languages, but J.K. Rowling and her publisher appear to have forgotten to market to one key demographic: technogeeks. The lack of an officially sanctioned eBook version of Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince infuriated some readers, and a pirated version of the book sprang up within hours on BitTorrent, thanks to an impressively coordinated effort by hundreds of readers.

I have no real opinion on this; I mostly just find it amusing, especially the headline ArtsJournal gave it.

By the way, Cory Doctorow’s virtual book signing is today! (pictured).  This cracks me up.

See also Wired: Pirates of the Potter-ian.

typepad, why must you torment me?

Please bear with me as I continue swapping out ugly Typepad templates.  Hopefully I’ll find one that doesn’t make me queasy after a couple of days.  Oddly, I find the "knitting" and "travel" themed templates more attractive than the generic ones.  (Of course I could pony up $30/year more for the privilege of choosing my own colors… woohoo! but that seems insane.)

Yes, I appreciate the irony of obsessing over blog layout on a pseudo-anti-technology blog.  But what else do we do with computers?  I wouldn’t be surprised if something like 25% of the average computer user’s time is spent messing with fonts and colors.

Messing with Daylight Saving Time

US lawmakers agreed today to extend daylight savings time.  From CNN (link: – Lawmakers move to extend daylight-saving time – Jul 22, 2005):

An agreement was reached Thursday to
extend daylight-saving time in an effort to conserve energy, but not to
the extent the House approved in April.

No-one seems to know for sure if there’s any truth to this dubious argument that extending daylight savings time will save real amounts of energy.  But as house representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts said,

"The beauty of daylight-saving time is that it just makes everyone feel sunnier"

and, gosh, who could argue with that?  Why don’t they rename it "Freedom Time" while they’re at it?

In addition to not anticipating the confusion this might create for Americans, they seem characteristically oblivious to the rest of the continent.  (Yes, it’s true!  The US shares time zones, and the daylight-savings scheme, with Canada and Mexico and some island nations.)

This affects Canadian business hugely (and US companies that do business with Canada).  Alberta will no doubt follow the US, contrarian Saskatchewan will continue doing their own thing, and the rest of the provinces will probably debate it for months and then grudgingly go along.  A recent Maclean’s article discusses the dilemma (link: Canada eyes closely proposed extension of daylight savings time in U.S.).  Excerpt:

"Given some preliminary analysis, it would seem a
necessity for us to follow the U.S. lead," said Tina Kremmidas, a
senior economist with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

Manufacturing schedules, particularly within the
auto sector, would suffer during months in which the United States and
Canada were on different clocks, said Kremmidas.

Airlines would need to rework their schedules, as
would TV networks, and the Canadian financial community would be
starting work an hour later than traders in New York, she added.

Violence and Video Games

Techdirt today has another post about whether video games do or do not cause youth violence.  (Link: Techdirt: A Look At Video Games And Youth Violence.)

Techdirt obviously comes down on the "do not" side, citing the "safety valve" argument — better for kids to release their aggression harmlessly through virtual violence in video games than through real violence in real life.  It sounds intuitive, but is it true?  Techdirt says "most studies have suggested that there’s no real link between violent video gaming and violent acts," but doesn’t give a reference (Update: Mike at Techdirt referred me to this article).  I’m sure there are in fact some studies that have shown this effect.  Whether it’s true of most studies is probably debatable, if it’s even possible to measure.

There are quite rational arguments on the other side as well.  In his book On Killing : The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Dave Grossman states some of them.  (His later books apparently address media violence in more depth, but I’m not familiar with them.)  He argues that simulated violence can be used to override a person’s natural inhibitions and reluctance to commit violence.  It does this in two main ways: desensitization and conditioning.  This is what the military has learned and it has informed the way they train soldiers.  In fact, they now use video games as part of training.

With proper conditioning, a soldier will react automatically in a situation where they need to kill an enemy.  Without this training, most soldiers are extremely reluctant to fire their weapons, and in fact many didn’t in earlier wars, including WWI and WWII.  This changed in Vietnam; because of conditioning, Grossman claims, many more soldiers were willing to kill (over 90%).

Obviously there are shades of grey here.  How violent is violent enough to condition someone to kill unthinkingly, and where exactly do today’s popular games rate?  But it’s naive to dismiss the arguments about desensitization and conditioning out of hand.  Obviously the military thinks there’s something to this, and they should know.

Grossman also made a surprisingly strong (to me) blanket statement to the effect that in the 1990s, the American Psychological Assocation stated that there is no doubt whatsoever that increased media violence is correlated with increased real-life violence.  (I don’t have the exact quote handy.)  That surprised me because I think most popular media reports give the impression that this question hasn’t been answered adequately.

So which is it?  Each side can and does claim that "most studies" are on their side, and unless you’re prepared to really dig into the research it’s hard for the layperson to know who to believe.

Free Software for Busy People

Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing discusses a new book promoting the free software movement: (Link: Boing Boing: Free Software for Busy People.)

Free Software for Busy People is a new book from Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, a
Bahraini MD who is on a mission to help information-civilians
understand why they should use free/open source software. The book
tells the story of six people from six walks of life (government
administrator, MD, corporate exec, entrepreneur, Arab teacher, primary
school teacher) who adopt free software.

You can buy/read the book and "meet the characters" here –  Characters include:

Mrs Shrub is the mayor of London. Intelligent, ambitious and
charismatic, she wants to cut the costs and increase the accessibility
of government services.

(Hmm. I thought Mrs Shrub still lived in the White House?)

Mr Big is the CEO of a Fortune 500 hotel company. The company froze
all investments in IT since 1999, when it had had to upgrade all its
computers for Year 2000 (Y2K) compliance. He knows another round of
upgrades is due within the next 18 months.

Conspicuously absent is Ms Waterfall, the software engineer who, in this utopian free-software future, struggles to make a living with her skills.