How Opinion Polls Influence Your Opinion, Not Measure It

How would you go about showing that the public’s will is in line with your policy? Watch the following excerpt from Yes, Minister and find out.

Noam Chomsky Interview With Andrew Marr (BBC)

BlueRat presents the now infamous interview between Chomsky and Andrew Marr of the BBC, in which Chomsky explains to the disbelieving journalist how the media serve power interests. Notably, Marr offers the Watergate example of how the media are independent. Chomsky disagrees. Why hasn’t Marr heard of CoIntelPro then? This interview dates back to the late 1990s and was originally broadcast on The Big Idea in Britain. (approx 30 mins)

Thoughts on Religion and Democracy

Religious tensions in the Middle East are a palpable truth of the region’s realpolitik. Frequently, atheists or humanists (or people adhering to both views) will contend that religion is the source of much (if not all) of the unrest in the world’s political makup, and that, if only religion would be abolished, the world would be a better place. Such arguments are made on the back of claims that religion is either wholly or for the most part irrational, untestable, unverifiable, and a uniquely potent driver towards violence. In short, a mechanism by which people drive themselves to conflict with others, rather than a force for harmony. The argument is interminable and often misguided. But regardless of whether either party is right, which one that may be, or whether both are mistaken, a related problem remains.

The United States is unique in that it is the sole country on the planet (and readers may correct me) in whose constitution the separation of Church and States is enshrined as a principle by which the affairs of the nation ought to be run healthily. The violation of that is in evidence with every word a US political figure utters in public support for his religion (invariably Christianity) and with the never ending court cases relating to the Decalogue being proclaimed on court walls and the teaching of “intelligent” design in schools. So it is a far from perfect system, even by its own criteria. But at least the sentiment is there in that political scripture: state and church are not to mix.

In countries permitting rule based on religious ideology, things are seen to faulter. An obvious example is the Taliban, whose fundamentalist Islamic actions represseed women, freedom, education and so many values that sane and rational people would hold dear. In Saudi Arabia, religous expression through government leads to a totalitarian rule. Note, incidentally, the hypocrisy of the western “liberators” and democracy bringers: they side with Saudi against terrorism, neglecting to mention that Saudi is itself implicated in it. This is not a staunch defence of democracy, but a staunch defence of the west interests. One fundamentalist group may be sacrificed and another befriended.

George Bush’s religious convictions may play to the tastes of his right-wing conservative god-fearing fans, but the rest of the world is worried, not only on account of the violation of the Church and State principle the US is failing to uphold, but also on account of the unaccountability of God. Democracy’s most treasured principle relates to the accountability of leadership and representation; people are to decide and it is to people that leaders are supposed to be accountable. Yet a leader who elevates God above the electorate surely sacrifices democracy at the same altar. No longer does the popular will suffice – policy decisions are to be ratified in a dialogue with the divine.

And in this way, religion undermines political ideals. American conservatives will shout at this till they’re blue in the face, but it is a fact. A president accountable only to the Lord, puts the people he serves second.

In Britain secular tradition extends deeper, despite the lack of a constitutional divide between faith and government. Britain has never shied away from producing the likes of David Hume, Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins as intellectual luminaries. It is for this reason that it was all the more shocking to discover, part-way through Blair’s premiership, that some of his convictions had their origins in religious belief. To appeal to religion for guidance is, however wise the passages of holy texts may be, to appeal to a source whose reasons are not accountable to the public will. And therefore, it is to mimic the retrograde ideologies of the very religious extremists modern US-UK policy seems bent on destroying (it’s link to such regimes as Saudi notwithstanding), and to undermine democracy.

Religious influence over political affairs and the ideal of democracy are not compatible.

Please watch the BBC’s coverage of Tony Blair’s admission that God guided him through parts of his own decision making processes during the last 10 years. Of particular interest should be his conviction that he will be judged by “other people” at the end of his tenure (perhaps on earth). Since the end of his premiership, speculation has arisen on Blair’s intention to convert to Catholicism.

Remote-Controlled Rats for Landmine Detection

The following article is taken from The Guardian, 2nd May 2002:

Scientists have turned living rats into remote-controlled, pleasure-driven robots which can be guided up ladders, through ruins and into minefields at the click of a laptop key.The project, which is funded by the US military’s research arm, Darpa, was partly inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US, and partly by the earthquake in India last January.

Animals have often been used by humans in combat and in search and rescue, but not under direct computer-to-brain electronic control. The advent of surgically altered roborats marks the crossing of a new boundary in the mechanisation, and potential militarisation, of nature.

Scientists at the State University of New York (Suny) created the roborats by planting electrodes into their brains, a paper in today’s edition of the journal Nature reports.Two electrodes lead to the parts of the rats’ brains which normally detect an obstacle against their whiskers. A third plunges into an area of the brain identified as far back as the 1950s as providing the rat with a feeling of pleasure when stimulated.

In 10 sessions the rats learned that if they ran forward and turned left or right on cue, they would be “rewarded” with a buzz of electrically delivered pleasure.

Once trained they would move instantaneously and accurately as directed, for up to an hour at a time. The rats could be steered up ladders, along narrow ledges and down ramps, up trees, and into collapsed piles of concrete rubble.

The Suny team suggests roborats fitted with cameras or other sensors could be used as search and rescue aids in natural disasters such as earthquakes, or in mine clearance.

Sanjiv Talwar, lead author of the Nature paper, said not only did the rats wearing electrodes feel no pain, but they were having a good time.

“If the rat moves left or right as commanded, it feels this burst of happiness,” he said. “It follows this sort of cue very accurately. They work only for rewards. They love doing it.”

The work on guided rats was an offshoot of earlier research which showed that animals wired up to a processor could command a robotic arm by thought alone, a development which could potentially empower paralysed humans.

Asked to speculate on potential military uses for robotic animals, Dr Talwar agreed they could, in theory, be put to some unpleasant uses, such as assassination.

“Is it possible, objectively? I would imagine, if anybody wanted to do something as absurd as that. But yes, surveillance is pretty straightforward, although for these sort of operations you could use robots. You could apply this to birds … if you could fit birds with sensors and cameras and the like.”

Michael Reiss, professor of science education at London’s Institute of Education and a leading bioethics thinker, said: “It could be argued that we have, for 10,000 years or more, pushed farm animals around and directed their behaviour, but this clearly involves a degree of control and degree of invasiveness that in most people’s eyes is a step change.”

Prof Reiss said he was uneasy about humankind “subverting the autonomy” of animals. “There is a part of me that is not entirely happy with the idea of our subverting a sentient animal’s own aspirations and wish to lead a life of its own.”

Dr Talwar said that perhaps there needed to be a wider ethical debate.

But he argued that the roborat programme was not so far from training dogs. “The only thing different, and perhaps creepy, is that instead of whistling or giving food, you’re directly tapping into the brain,” he said.

Responsibility In a Nuclear Age

J. Robert Oppenheimer (April 22, 1904February 18, 1967) was an American theoretical physicist best known for his role as the director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons, at the secret Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico. Known as “the father of the atomic bomb,” Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Famously, after the war he recounted his impressions of the bomb’s invention by quoting the Bhagavad Gita whilst trying to hold back tears on television.

In his book Heresies, John Gray reminds us that science is not the answer to mankind’s existential woes or spiritual shortcomings, nor an advance in its will to do good either; it merely amplifies our capacity to express these. Robert Oppenheimer died of throat cancer at age 62 in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1967. The video above should remind us of the responsibility mankind has in handling the fruits of scientific enterprise. The 42nd anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up in August.



The picture above is a photograph taken of the first nuclear bomb test at The Manhattan Project. It was named Trinity by Oppenheimer.

In a 6-part series called Pandora’s Box, film-maker Adam Curtis has explored the continuing desire of mankind to fall for the illusion that scientific progress equates to progress for mankind on other levels. The theme of this unwarranted belief in science is explored in the last episode of the series, “A is for Atom”, in which Curtis examines mankind’s custody of nuclear capacity and the hope its discovery brought.


The Chairman Mao T-Shirt

We are blind if we don’t perceive that the greatest risks humanity might yet face may lie in the absent-minded consumer culture we are continually endorsing. (This is no radical anarchist’s plea, bear with me…)

To offer some support for this awesome indictment, and explain a little more, I remind you of George Santayana’s eerie observation: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The purist’s retort that history by definition cannot be repeated misses the point here, and I for one hope to learn Santayana’s line is not prescient in our civilization’s specific case.

I fear though, that it is. Mankind’s unsustainable decimation of natural resources (note: not “our” natural resources – we have no right of ownership here), was most obviously the reason for the fall of several preceding civilizations also – a point made eloquently by Jared Diamond in his fabulous book Collapse. It is a point incidentally, that is embarrassing to have to make in a rationalist “Age of Information”. Sadly, it is utterly necessary. Nonetheless, we plough on regardless, razing rain forests, raping the seas and testing the patience of nature in evermore obtuse ways. And we do this to fill the “widget-shaped hole” inside us all. “If only I could have the digital camera to capture humanity’s self-destruction, I would be complete.”

The 20th century’s massacre-laden narrative has also been, it would seem, consigned to collective unmemory. (There is, perhaps a subtle difference between not caring to remember something, and forgetting it outright.) Images of Stalin or Hitler’s demagoguery fade more rapidly with each passing day. They have been consigned to the televisual dustbin the History Channel’s sensationalist retrospectives rarely fail to be. The urgency of remembering what great horror mankind has cursed itself with in the past no longer exercises most minds even in fleeting seconds. We are ever keener to forget about all that. No, not to forget. Just not to remember if we can help it.

Even in remembering there is some effort necessary; registering a fact in the mind does not compare to meditating on it’s implications. But instead we turn our attention to the pleasures of retail therapy, consumerism, and through these accept the sale, unwittingly or otherwise, of personal and collective meaninglessness:

The zipper non-pocket marks wonderfully our “progress” down a cultural cul-de-sac. It is not only that we will find no way through, but that the end itself is perilous. For in it lie the unfathomable dangers of being surprised by a Mao, or Hitler or Stalin again. We are sacrificing the symbols humankind’s greatest struggles and learned lessons to the indifferent spirit of material gratification. We are trivialising hard-earned wisdom itself. I call for a reversal of this trend, not from the soap-box of some left-wing quack analysis, but from the genuine concern over our future. I am against us sleep-walking towards our cultural and perhaps evolutionary finale out of the lack of vision and will so many before us have been capable of. Such a thing might very well spell, as Noam Chomsky put it, be “the end of evolution’s experiment with intelligence.”

Please enjoy the following lecture by Jared Diamond, which turns intriguing after the gratuitously self-obsessed pre-amble. Will our civilization survive?