Loved By The Bad, Feared By The Good

At what point can we just declare that the terrorists have won and let them get on with running things? Almost every day brings them new victories. I’m not talking about murders and bombings, those are merely weapons. To defeat a democratic society you make it turn on itself. And so a stunning victory was achieved this week in the courts of England, when a man was criminalized for making a joke on Twitter.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining what Twitter is, as many – including it seems the judge in this case – still have no idea. Twitter is confusing to some because it doesn’t easily fit into the categories of public medium or private communication. On one hand it’s very public, in that anyone who joins can post remarks on it. In another sense it is quite private; your posts are (normally) only seen by people who choose to see them, and therefore know who you are.

Paul Chambers was planning a trip to Belfast to see a friend when he heard that his (oddly named) local airport had been shut down by last winter’s bad weather. “Crap!” he wrote, “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Now that wasn’t a very funny joke, but it is quite obvious that it was meant in jest, as a way to vent his frustration. And yet he now has a criminal record – which in turn has destroyed his career as an accountant – for “sending, by a public communications network, a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.

Clearly ‘menacing’ is the word at issue here. And clearly it was not menacing, because (a) it was patently not intended to be, (b) menaces are generally sent to the person or persons you are trying to menace, not to your friends, and (c) terrorists never preface their threats with the word “Crap”.

It is also clear that this law was not intended to criminalize casual speech. Judge Jonathan Bennett acknowledged this. Yet using his years of carefully honed stupidity, he managed to reach the conclusion that though not meant as a threat by the sender, the fact that it might be misunderstood to be menacing (by whom?) makes it a criminal act. He was satisfied – and these are his exact words – that the message was of a “menacing nature in the context of the time we live in”.

He may as well have said “I must deliberately misconstrue all jokes as serious expressions of intent, because that is what the terrorists have instructed me to do.” He is doing their bidding. By cooperating with their aim of destroying a free society, this judge may as well be a terrorist himself.

I’m not joking here.

Gene Genie

When genetically modified crops first went on trial, one of the greatest worries was that their new genes might spread to wild plants, making them resistant to herbicide, poisonous to insects, or God knows what. The chemical companies developing them went to a lot of effort to allay these fears, paying for enormous public relations campaigns to assure us that this could in no way ever possibly happen.

It happened. Pollen from an experimental crop of oilseed rape plants in the UK has managed to fertilise their distant cousin, a weed known as charlock or wild mustard. Now a new strain, invulnerable to a common herbicide, has been found growing wild in the pleasant English county of Dorset. Not only does this show that the safeguards and assurances of GM developers are worthless, it is an ecological disaster in itself. If such a hybrid proves fertile it is inevitable that this gene will spread throughout the charlock population. Weed killer resistance is, to say the least, a beneficial trait for a weed.

If you haven’t heard of charlock this may be because it’s better known here as bráiste. It’s quite a pretty plant to my eyes, with its delicate yellow flowers. My mother disagrees – because she remembers the times before herbicides. Bráiste is a common weed of cereal crops, and back then it had to be picked out at time of harvest, by hand. The children were set to this backbreaking work, gathering it from the mown barley and carrying it to the side of the field. Under the sun, hour after hour. No wonder she can’t stand the sight of it.

If it becomes herbicide resistant, will our children be picking it out by hand once again? It is only immune to one chemical so far, but if they keep up these trials other genes for resistance are going to leak into the wild. These will accumulate in plants, creating a ‘superweed’ that will be nearly impossible to kill chemically. It has already happened in Canada, where they have a strain of oilseed rape invulnerable to major modern weed killers and are having to use ones previously banned for being damaging to the environment. Weren’t GM crops meant to be less harmful?

Government scientists overseeing the experiment thought that bráiste was too distantly related to oilseed rape for cross-fertilisation to take place. They were dead wrong, and now it has jumped one species gap it seems likely that the trait can spread to related plants. What is related? Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohl rabi, turnips, spinach, radishes, swede, rutabaga, canola, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, mustard… In short, most vegetables in the human diet. We’ve polluted the genome of the brassicas, probably the single most useful group of plants known to mankind. Go us.

The companies that are promoting them claim they can make GM crops infertile. Out of environmental concern? Maybe – but more because they want to sell farmers new seed every year. (Indeed farmers who have attempted to save their own seed have been charged with intellectual property theft!) But they’re only fooling themselves. This infertility is in itself a genetic characteristic, and thus subject to mutation. There is nothing to stop occasional ‘sports’ deciding that actually they’ll be fruitful anyway, thank you very much. Genes are reproduction; attempting to fix them so that they do not reproduce is like commanding the tide to stay out.

We need to ban GM crops. It’s not just the balance of nature these superweeds endanger though, but food production itself. There are many grounds to criticise intensive agriculture in its current form, but without it food would not be anything like as plentiful. Right now famines only occur in places where people are too poor to import food; there’s no shortage of it in the world overall. If intensive agriculture were to collapse though, all that would change.

We’d be the poor.

And I’m in favour of genetic engineering. No, seriously I am. But we are not anything like ready. This research should be done in sealed labs down disused mine shafts, not in the natural environment. We simply have no idea what we are doing yet, and once a harmful trait escapes into the wild nothing will get the genie back into the bottle. At least, nothing short of dropping an atomic bomb on Dorset.

This Is Your Brain On Screen

IBM has a really interesting – and just slightly scary – plan. In cooperation with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, they want to simulate the human brain.

They’re building a computer model. This is not the same thing as Artificial Intelligence (AI), programming a machine to act human. That would be a ‘top down’ approach; trying to understand how the mind works by looking at what it does. Instead this is ‘bottom up’, simulating the nuts and bolts of the brain, its biological wiring, its cells, even its molecules.

Which is quite an undertaking – in fact it is hard to exaggerate how big the task is. The brain is often described as the most complex thing in the known universe. Complexity is a thing that’s difficult to define but easy to perceive. Looking into the back of a TV, you’re instantly aware that it’s more complex than say a food mixer. Basically it looks more tricky to fix. The parts are small, numerous, and connected together in many different ways. Perhaps that’s the most intiuitive shorthand measure of complexity – the number of different ways that the parts of something interconnect. The human brain has far more connected parts than any other thing known, certainly more than any computer. Even Japan’s Earth Simulator, built to model the climate of the entire planet, is nothing compared to the brain of an average person.

It’s no surprise therefore that they aren’t trying to do the whole thing at once, or anything approaching that. They are starting with the best bit though: the neocortex (also called the cerebrum), the outside layer of the brain that’s most recent in evolutionary terms. It’s not unique to us, but it is far more developed in humans than in any other animal and appears to be responsible for what we experience as thought.

Even alone though, this is still far too complex for current technology to tackle. All they’re hoping to simulate right now is what’s known as a neocortical column. This can be described as a single ‘circuit’ of the brain, one of its processing units. The whole neocortex contains about a million of these. And for the moment at least, they only plan to model it on the level of its cells; to get down to the molecules that make up the cells will take vastly more computational power again. Yet even this is an immensely ambitious target. To model just one circuit of the brain in this (relatively) simple way will require four whole modules of Blue Gene – the technology IBM used to take the title of world’s fastest supercomputer back from the Earth Simulator.

So how far are we then from modelling the whole brain? Well assuming this first stage succeeds – it won’t be easy – all they really need to do is scale it up. Vastly. These four Blue Gene racks would fit in a normal kitchen. Four million? They would take up a golf course, and require the energy of five medium-sized power stations.

When you consider that your actual brain fits inside your head and runs reasonably well on sandwiches and cups of tea, you realise what a gap there is between nature’s technology and our own.

What’s the point then in going to all this trouble when a brain can be made much more cheaply using just two humans? If the object were to create machines that think, this would clearly be a madly inefficient way to go about it. But that’s not the object. The fact is we know amazingly little about how our own brains work. Simulating a part of one, even a solitary neocortical circuit, will teach us so much about what is really going on in there. Modelling allows you to find out why something is the way it is, because it can show you what would happen if it were different. The beneficial applications of that are obvious; as we see how it works, we gain greater insight into why it fails – what causes schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, autism, the things that plague our minds.

But though it’s always good when research has palpable benefits, I think we need no  such excuse when it comes to researching the structure and function of the brain. To know ones own mind – that is surely a philosophical imperative.

(For more fun with human brains, see the comic strip)

Set Your Child to ‘Record’

Ho Ho. Time again for one of my jolly Christmas tirades. About now it is as seasonal as robins roasted on an open fire to advertise toys to kids. Is Wrong. It’s like marketing flight to penguins. Children cannot actually buy toys, no matter how hard they try. These commercials should not be shown until the kids are in bed, like those for other drugs.

Not all toy adverts are aimed at children though. I saw one for a vast Fisher-Price toddler entertainment unit, obviously aimed at parent rather than off-sprog. Its slogan was “Oh the possibilities!” It didn’t really mean “Think of the possibilities of the great big shiny  thing with loads of knobs to push!” It meant “Think of the possibilities for your little baby if you buy them all this crazy stimulating plastic shit they’ll grow up to be something clever and successful like a surgeon or a lawyer!”

Or even an advertising executive. Give the kids enough brightly-coloured stuff that makes noise, the sales pitch goes, and they’ll grow up to be hyper-intelligent Übermenschen. Bollocks. For once I agree wholeheartedly with Steven Pinker, you can’t stimulate kids into brilliance by throwing money at them. The difference between ‘to play with’ and ‘to understand’ may just be a matter of degree, but what is there in a baby-crawler to understand? Nothing. Kids learn not by twirling pointless plastic things but by interacting with others. These so-called ‘educational’ toys though are often put to quite the opposite end – keeping kids out of adult hair. You can’t help but wonder if they have anything to do with the apparent rise in autism.

So toy commercials should perhaps be kept away from the more impressionable parents too. Thankfully the technology now exists. Hard disc video recorders can serve up your evening’s viewing with all the adverts edited out. (No you can’t buy the TiVo here, but you can set up just the same thing using a computer.) At last, commercial-free viewing will be a possibility. All channels will be like the BBC. Except without all the adverts for the BBC.

Unless the advertising industry ban it. They’re trying. The ads, they say, pay for the programs. Therefore if you’re editing out the commercials, you’re watching the programs without paying for them. Not watching adverts, they’re trying to argue, is theft. Hmm. Gives the phrase ‘Pay attention’ a whole new meaning. By the same logic, channel surfing or turning the sound down during the commercial breaks is also stealing from the broadcasters.

So you won’t be able to protect your kids from the toy adverts. In fact unless you want them to be criminals, you’ll have to force them to watch. Don’t look away dear, you’re stealing from Barney.

See you next week. Don’t touch that dial! (Under penalty.)