The Null Device
Not sure what to put in the remaining 5¼" drive bay of your souped-up PC, next to the DVD rewriter, 50-function fan-controller/card reader and graphical status display? How about an audio cassette deck. It plugs into a serial port and your sound card through a breakout box, comes with Windows software for controlling it and recording from/to audio cassettes, and can be yours for a mere US$149 (from ThinkGeek, not surprisingly).
Two academics from Victoria's Deakin University have published a paper calling for torture to be legalised to help fight terrorism. Not that there's much new in this (celebrated US lawyer Alan Dershowitz argued a similar point in his call for "torture warrants" some years ago), except perhaps for the extreme utilitarian stance they take, advocating even the torturing to death of innocents if the ends justify it:
Asked if he believed interrogators should be able to legally torture an innocent person to death if they had evidence the person knew about a major public threat, such as the September 11 attacks, Professor Bagaric replied: "Yes, you could."
Applying utilitarian cost-benefit calculations to matters of human lives is tricky; taking the strict numerical approach, it should be OK to kill an innocent person to harvest their kidneys if it would save the lives of two terminally ill patients; after all, the net gain is one life. Of course, Bagaric and Clarke are not asserting such an absolute a-life-for-a-life arithmetic, though by allowing the killing of the innocent to save others, they are crossing a line towards it. And that is not even looking at the question of whether torture works (the value of testimony obtained under torture has been somewhat dubious).
Anyway, I suspect that Bagaric and Clarke's law lectures are probably going to become a lot less quiet.
Cross-cultural artefact of the day: ABC guidelines on how to refer to deceased Aboriginal people (PDF), referring to the common Aboriginal tradition prohibiting the use of the personal names of the recently deceased:
People who share the personal name of the deceased person--including English names--will very often temporarily or permanently adopt another personal name.
In central Australia, the construction "Kumanjayi"--and variants--are used to replace the personal name of the deceased, and is very commonly taken on by people who share the same or similar sounding personal name&emdash... Again as an example, the main town of central Australia was referred to by members of some communities as "Kumanjayi Springs", after the death of a woman called Alice. In the latter case, it could hardly be expected a media organisation should follow this practice!
I once read that one reason why the vocabularies Australian Aboriginal languages changed relatively rapidly was that often the names for various things would be changed if they sounded much like the names of recently deceased people.
(via ABC MediaWatch)
Orchestras across Europe are being contacted to help identify a man found on a beach in Kent, dressed in a soaking-wet tuxedo. The man had no identification and did not speak. Staff at the Medway Maritime Hospital gave him a pen and paper, on which he drew detailed pictures of a grand piano; when shown the piano in the hospital's chapel, he regaled staff with a 2-hour virtuoso performance:
Interestingly, the BBC article claims that the hospital believes he may be from Eastern Europe, whereas The Times asserts that police believe that he is English, and also that he drew a Swedish flag along with the piano.
He is being held in a secure mental-health unit, presumably in case it turns out that someone had tried to kill him and they decide to finish the job.
An interesting MSNBC article speculating on the future of human evolution, and interviewing scientists including Richard Dawkins:
Some environmentalists say toxins that work like estrogens are already having an effect: Such agents, found in pesticides and industrial PCBs, have been linked to earlier puberty for women, increased incidence of breast cancer and lower sperm counts for men.
"One of the great frontiers is going to be trying to keep humans alive in a much more toxic world," he observed from his Seattle office. "The whales of Puget Sound are the most toxic whales on Earth. Puget Sound is just a huge cesspool. Well, imagine if that goes global."
If we count humanity's technology as part of the evolving package &emdash; the extended phenotype, as Dawkins called it &emdash; then that will become part of the future of humanity, even if only due to the inevitable increase in pollution of an increasingly crowded Earth. Our descendants will have microscopic flotillas of nanobots in their bloodstreams, hunting down toxins and zapping proto-cancerous mutations. Perhaps corporations will remain the dominant species on earth, and the nanobots will be rented from the corporation that owns the patents for them; any human unlucky or imprudent enough to miss a payment can look forward to dying of massive organ failure, turning into a mass of tumours or having their suddenly naked immune system eaten alive by superbugs within 24 hours. Unless you live in the future's equivalent of Brazil or somesuch, in which case you'd get free open-source nanobots, considered by the America of the future to be pirated. But I digress.
Further on, the article speculates about whether humanity will diverge into different species, looking at Eloi/Morlocks scenarios, whether any sort of apocalyptic scenario could divide humanity into enough separate subgroups for them to evolve separately, and the question of body enhancement:
"You're talking about three different kinds of humans: the enhanced, the naturals and the rest," Garreau said. "The enhanced are defined as those who have the money and enthusiasm to make themselves live longer, be smarter, look sexier. That's what you're competing against."
In Garreau's view of the world, the naturals will be those who eschew enhancements for higher reasons, just as vegetarians forgo meat and fundamentalists forgo what they see as illicit pleasures. Then there's all the rest of us, who don't get enhanced only because they can't. "They loathe and despise the people who do, and they also envy them."
Then there is the question of germline genetic engineering, which could create instant races of superhumans or monsters, the AI singularity and even the vaguely retro-sounding prospect of spacefaring.