Man Vs Machine

We all know of the SETI@home project, where since 1999 we have been able to donate our computers unused resources to download and analyzes radio telescope data to assist in the search for aliens. Biologists got in on distributed computing too and launched Folding@home and rosetta@home where computers and next generation consoles (PS3s) are used to try and predict protein folding.

However due to the nature of proteins and the complex interactions which they undergo, writing accurate algorithms to try and determine the correct structure is difficult, so since May researches at the University of Washington have decided to harness the power of online gamers and scientist who spend too much time on their computers, oh and possibly the bored graduate student who wants to look like they are doing work.

Foldit presents an unfolded protein and the user then has to wiggle, shake and move the protein into the optimal configuration, as you move towards the optimal structure you are awarded points. So far 60 proteins have been released for competition, and around 600 people registered to fold, in less than 2 months, it seems to have captured the interest of a lot of people.

For players without a biochemistry background the learning curve is step, but biochemistry is not a prerequisite for success, because it is possible to fold the proteins after going through the tutorial. Most of the online players are from non science backgrounds, showing that this tool really is harnessing the power of gamers.

Whether it folds proteins more accurately, and faster than computer based methods is yet to be seen


Courtesy of TED, Philosopher Dan Dennett makes a compelling argument that not only don’t we understand our own consciousness, but that half the time our brains are actively fooling us, arguing that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes and are not what we traditionally think they are. See more of his fascinating talks here.

The fear surrounding this event is not only palpable, but downright disturbing.

I feel as if I should write something more about this, but I think it speaks for itself. From the Nigerian Tribune:

Cat-woman in Port Harcourt, NigeriaThis woman was reported to have earlier been seen as a cat before she reportedly turned into a woman in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, on Thursday. Photo: Bolaji Ogundele.WHAT could be described as a fairy tale turned real on Wednesday in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, as a cat allegedly turned into a middle-aged woman after being hit by a commercial motorcycle (Okada) on Aba/Port Harcourt Expressway.

…Nigerian Tribune learnt that three cats were crossing the busy road when the okada ran over one of them which immediately turned into a woman. This strange occurrence quickly attracted people around who descended on the animals. One of them, it was learnt, was able to escape while the third one was beaten to death, still as a cat though.

…Another witness…said the woman started faking when she saw that many people were gathering around her. “I have never seen anything like this in my life. I saw a woman lying on the road instead of a cat. Blood did not come out of her body at that time. When people gathered and started asking her questions, she pretended that she did not know what had happened,” he said.

…[The woman] was later taken to a hospital for medical attention. It took the intervention of policemen to prevent the mob from killing her. [Bolaji Ogundele, Nigerian Tribune, Cat turns into Woman in P/Harcourt, Port Harcourt, 22nd May 2008].

We’ve all heard about the death toll in Iraq (~4,100 dead at the time of this writing), seen the footage of memorial services, the news reports about hidden casualties and the perceived unreality of what’s happening in the Middle East. But there’s a subset of war casualties we don’t hear much about—those returned soldiers who commit suicide, who attempt suicide, who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, who suffer from any number of other mental illnesses exacerbated by the war.

Kevin and Joyce Lucey, a couple who lost their son to suicide in 2004, marked this Memorial Day differently, attending a new kind of rally.

Organizers of the waterfront rally, including Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, said they wanted an alternative way to mark Memorial Day from traditional “militaristic” parades and speeches that glorify war. For instance, President Bush yesterday talked about soldiers in Iraq who died “doing what they loved most: defending the United States of America.” The reality, said Memorial Day for Peace organizers, is that troops and civilians alike are dying for Bush’s foreign policy mistakes.

Yet, despite opinion polls over the last two years that consistently show the majority of Americans oppose the five-year-old war, many protests draw small crowds. Only about 100 people, mostly veterans and veteran activists, turned up at the waterfront, drawing a few barbs from the speakers about all the people who view Memorial Day as little more than a day off from work. [Boston Globe, Rally’s veterans, activists seek to avoid glorifying war, Scott Allen, May 27th, 2008.]

But what about those who are still with us, struggling with depression, PTSD, and urges to commit suicide? Well, there’s some hope in a new private practice programme. As this article from the AP tells us,

WASHINGTON—Thousands of private counselors are offering free services to troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems, jumping in to help because the military is short on therapists.

On this Memorial Day, America’s armed forces and its veterans are coping with depression, suicide, family, marital and job problems on a scale not seen since Vietnam. The government has been in beg-borrow-and-steal mode, trying to hire psychiatrists and other professionals, recruit them with incentives or borrow them from other agencies.

Among those volunteering an hour a week to help is Brenna Chirby, a psychologist with a private practice in McLean, Va.

“It’s only an hour of your time,” said Chirby, who counsels a family member of a man deployed multiple times. “How can you not give that to these men and women that … are going oversees and fighting for us?”

There are only 1,431 mental health professionals among the nation’s 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, said Terry Jones, a Pentagon spokesman on health issues.

About 20,000 more full- and part-time professionals provide health care services for the Veterans Administration and the Pentagon. They include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers and substance abuse counselors. [Pauline Jelinek, AP, May 25th, 2008.]

Until a chance encounter over coffee the other day, this new death toll had not occurred to me—sure, I knew troops had issues with PTSD and the like, I even know a couple. But the idea of suicide as a result of war, although immediately understandable, was not on my personal radar. And how true is that for the public in general? Mental illness carries a stigma—a lesser stigma in the US than some other parts of the world, but a stigma all the same. Which is why it’s important, imperative even, that we talk about it, today.

For more information, help, and non-judgemental discussion about suicide and depression, contact The Samaritans at http://www.samaritanshope.org and 877-870-HOPE (4673).

Food for thought: two months’ worth of the military budget would wipe out the student loan debt of every current student in America and then some.

Four months’ worth would send every student academically eligible to attend college to school for free.

Three months’ worth would pay for the entire reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, erasing Katrina’s damage.

Friend of Pensive, Chris Penn has posted a short article on where the US military budget could go, and a reminder that we can help make policies in the voting booth this November (well, those of us that are US citizens, so not me -but the point stands).

Food for Thought on Memorial Day

With its lace curtain bungalows and steepled Anglican church, the once tranquil town of Camden in New South Wales seems the most improbable of settings for a row that combines race and religion.

Now the town, which lies on south-west fringes of Sydney, is confronting a very 21st Century issue: the proposal to construct an Islamic school for some 1,200 Muslim pupils.

This is definitely a touchy subject, inflaming a lot of passions:

“Everywhere is being destroyed. Why don’t we tell the truth. They’re wrecking Australia. They’re taking us over,” she said.

“Why hasn’t anyone got any guts? They’ve got terrorists amongst ’em… They want to be here so they can go and hide in all the farm houses… This town has every nationality… but Muslims do not fit in this town. We are Aussies, OK.”

I won’t shy away from calling this what it is – xenophobic racism. Stopping a religious school because it is not your religion is wrong.


There is a valid objection to the school – “planning”: a 1200 student school in an area that has, (in my rough guess) about 500 Muslim students means a lot of students are going to be bussed or driven in. In an age where carbon should be a critical factor in every decision, I think this should more than enough to quash the school.

Beyond that, I have a fundamental objection to religious schools of any sort. Religion has no place in education – the notion of received or revealed wisdom is a direct contradiction of how the world works – in science, in mathematics, in history. Truth is found through thought and investigation. Not through reading one or two books of dubious veracity.

Religion stunts the development of the human mind – it is a meme that once served a purpose (of a sort) but has survived long past the point where it did anyone any real good. In a very real way, it is like an appendix of the psyche – a vestigial organ that dates back to long ago and now just consumes resources and endangers our lives by eventually becoming inflamed and bursting.

No-one should be exposed to religion, least of all children who haven’t the experience to tell dogma, superstition and wishful thinking from truth. No religious groups should be allowed to run schools, period. If religion must exist in this world, it should be treated the way pornography is – kept away from children by law, made hard to find, the users ostracized and condemned. All religions have an agenda – even if it is a relatively innocent agenda of self-propagation – and education coming from an agenda is bound to be substandard.

BBC – Town moves against Islamic school

As she accepts her 2008 TED Prize, author and scholar Karen Armstrong talks about how the Abrahamic religions — Islam, Judaism, Christianity — have been diverted from the moral purpose they share to foster compassion. But Armstrong has seen a yearning to change this fact. People want to be religious, she says; we should act to help make religion a force for harmony. She asks the TED community to help her build a Charter for Compassion — to help restore the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine.

I find the idea that humanity needs religion to encourage or justify compassion incredibly insulting. Religion has contributed to many of the great evils perpetrated over the entire span of human history. We can learn to be nice to each other without some sort of cosmic judge looking over our shoulders. And then it is real compassion – an act of love and respect for our fellows – not an act of fear.

The “charitable works” of the religious are akin to those of people on court ordered public service – no matter what face they try to put upon it, we all know that they are only there because a higher power that they fear has made them. This is distinct from true volunteers who sacrifice their own time, resources, and/or comfort for the greater good of what ever group they identify with – a society, a nation, a race, a species or the “Greater Terran Group of Life Forms” (As far as I know, no-one on Earth is working consciously to help out a group larger than all life on Earth).

We can be nice to each other with worrying about what Yahweh or Zeus or Kwan-yin tell us to do. Listen to your own conscience. Act rationally. Compassion is the end result of rationality. Don’t apologize for religion, just join the rest of us that can see that we have outgrown it.