Accelerating in the wrong direction

In terms of its actions, Canada continues to deeply misunderstand the nature, seriousness, and implications of climate change.

What we know about the history of the climate and the nature of greenhouse gases strongly suggests that the continuing build-up of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere is highly dangerous.

Since burning fossil fuels is the major source of that pollution, both Canada and the world as a whole need to be talking about how to phase out fossil fuels.

Instead, we are talking about how to massively increase our production and exports of these dangerous substances. We should be winding down production of coal, oil, and gas – not continuing to dig and drill more and more, or building thick new export corridors for hydrocarbons that really ought to remain underground.

Hillis Plot on a 13″ MacBook Pro

The Hillis Plot is a beautiful way of displaying the common ancestry of all life on Earth. The Hillis and Bull Lab at the University of Texas has several images of the plot on their website. Included among them is a PDF version with effectively infinite resolution which they say is free for “non-commercial, educational purposes”. The relationships between life forms shown in this plot were determined using rRNA sequences.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts there is a shop called danger!awesome that burns patterns onto materials like wood, metal, and plastic using powerful CO2 infrared lasers.

The PDF of the Hillis Plot is not ideal for burning into an Apple laptop because the circle in the middle is too small. It would go underneath the translucent Apple logo. Thankfully, a very helpful employee named Jesse Ashcraft-Johnson was willing to custom-modify the file so that it would fit around the logo. He also tweaked the text so the whole thing would fit well on the back of my 13″ MacBook Pro. He was also willing to run the laser for more than 30 minutes, and run it in a vector mode where the beam traced each of the lines of descent in the plot. The final result looks awesome.


danger!awesome is located at 10 Prospect Street. Their phone number is 617-714-5829 and they can be emailed at

Fun fact: the laser cutters at danger!awesome were first used to burn an animation into pieces of toast for an OK Go video: Last Leaf.

Googling the Cyborg

In his engaging essay “Googling the Cyborg”, William Gibson effectively argues that the expectation that ‘the cyborg’ will be a human being with an electronic eye and a robot arm is mistaken. The cyborg – he argues – exists in the physical interactions between human beings and machines: “The electrons streaming into a child’s eye from the screen of the wooden television are as physical as anything else. As physical as the neurons subsequently moving along that child’s optic nerve”. (The terminology there is strangely incorrect. Cathode ray tube televisions emit photons, which are produced when the electrons fired from the back of the vacuum tube hit a phosphor screen – and the optic nerve is made of neurons, it isn’t a channel that conveys them. No matter.)

Gibson argues that the cyborg is the “extended communal nervous system” that humanity has grown for itself, with all these sensors and processors and network connections.

He also argues that there is a short-changing that occurs, when we deny that the humans who are behind machines are using them as true extensions of their own being. In the context of remote-controlled rovers on Mars, he says:

Martian jet lag. That’s what you get when you operate one of those little Radio Shack wagon/probes from a comfortable seat back at an airbase in California. Literally. Those operators were the first humans to experience Martian jet lag. In my sense of things, we should know their names: first humans on the Red Planet. Robbed of recognition by that same old school of human literalism.

Gibson, William. Distrust that Particular Flavor. p.251 (hardcover)

I am not sure what should be counted as the first cyborg on Mars. Specifically, did it need to be able to move on human command? Or is moving camera shutters enough to count? In any case, hardly anyone knows the name of the person who was controlling it when it first activated on the Martian surface.

Boston sights

I have really been enjoying Boston. The city has a nice scale to it – Sasha and I have been able to walk everywhere so far. The architecture is pleasant and interesting, and the people have been universally friendly. There are many parks and pleasant watercourses to walk along. I could definitely imagine spending a worthwhile and enjoyable few years here, doctoral acceptances permitting.

Yesterday, we saw some engaging sculpture, architecture, and video at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Especially notable were some infinitely reflective installations, made using semi-silvered glass, as well as some whimsical but sometimes horrifying biological paintings, an intense video about Chinese migrants in England who drowned collecting cockles, a kind of exploded charcoal bonfire suspended in air, and the building itself. In the evening, we saw Ravel, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ravel’s ‘Ma Mere L’Oye’ suite was pleasantly pastoral, and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony was amazing. Sasha pointed out to me that Stalin insisted on the piece being called: “An artist’s creative response to just criticism”.

Sasha is heading back to Montreal now, but I have a couple more days here. Today, it is back to Harvard for a meeting (and to pick up 24 green Pilot G2 pens!). I am also planning to have a look at some libraries, bookstores, and coffeeshops in the area.

Twitter grabbing address books from phones

Here’s an example of what I mean about the internet creating all sorts of new security vulnerabilities. Twitter has recently confessed to grabbing entire address books from the smartphones of people using the service.

As well as being a violation of privacy, this is a practice that could seriously endanger people. Consider all those brave protestors in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, using Twitter to help organize a pro-democracy movement. If Twitter is grabbing their address books, it is assembling a perfect tool for the intelligence services of governments to round up everyone involved in protests. The same is true for people pressing for democracy in China, or doing anything else that is laudable but unpopular with the people in charge.

Technology companies need to recognize that there will be people who want to use their records and capabilities for nefarious purposes, and they need to design their technology and procedures to protect against such attacks and reduce how serious they are when they take place.

The companies that make operating systems for smartphones should also assume that applications can be ineptly designed or malicious, and should work to protect the data on the phone from potential eavesdroppers.

Ending drug prohibition

Earlier, I wrote about whether the phrase ‘greenhouse gas pollution’ is accurate, and whether it might be useful for building political will to do something about climate change. The phrase is accurate – CO2 is an unwanted by-product of various processes and it does harm to people all over the world – and it may be a useful way to remind people that ‘greenhouse gas emissions’ are a real problem that needs to be dealt with. It calls to mind phrases like “make the polluter pay [for the cost of cleaning up pollution]”.

I wonder whether a similar change in language might be helpful for opposing unreasonable drug laws. Mention ‘marijuana legalization’ and the eyes of the people around you will glaze over. They have heard the debate, they have their view, and they probably don’t care about it too strongly one way or the other.

Maybe we can do better by saying things like: “End marijauana prohibition” or “End the prohibition of drugs”.

People remember the prohibition of alcohol, the way it failed, and the problems it caused. It enriched organized crime and pushed alcohol use underground. It led to inferior and dangerous kinds of alcohol being sold. It cost tax revenues, crowded the prisons, and so on. All this is true of drug criminalization today. Most of the problems associated with drugs only exist because they are illegal, or are made much worse because they are illegal. Drug prohibition turns the drug trade into a violent, dangerous business and it turns ordinary people who use substances that are often more benign than alcohol or tobacco into criminals.

Al Capone was the natural consequence of alcohol prohibition. His successors created by the drug war may be less famous – and they may kill more people in Mexico than in Chicago – but their business has arisen for exactly the same reason, and operates according to the same logic. Stratfor describes what has been happening recently in Mexico as “a stalemate” “between the Sinaloa Federation, Los Zetas and the government” and argue that it has produced 50,000 deaths. That is more than 16 times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. It’s about 6% of the number of deaths associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Ending drug prohibition just makes sense. It is both unethical and ineffective for governments to try to control what consenting adults do with their bodies. Their efforts to assert that control are doing demonstrable harm. Perhaps by speaking about the situation in terms of ‘ending prohibition’ rather than ‘legalizing’ this or that, the political debate can be moved forward just a little.