1. Gobar gas. Using relatively cheap materials, it is possible to build a “digester” that turns dung into natural gas. Gobar gas has had a lot of success in the Indian subcontinent. It seems like this could be an excellent way to provide safer cooking fuels for rural people in developing countries (as opposed to using wood for cooking fuel, which produces indoor smoke which is often a health hazard and which uses up the trees in forests).
2 Computer learns language by playing games. A computer was able to learn to read a the text of a computer game manual (without having any prior English language knowledge programmed into it) and learn how to improve its gameplay strategy (in the game Civilization 2). My favorite Skynet-related comment left by a reader: “I’m curious about which victory conditions the AI tended towards. I’m hoping it was space colonization and not world domination.” As it turns out, the computer’s strategy was world domination (winning the game by conquering all other civilizations through warfare).
3. A chart showing the different ways the Bible defines marriage.
4. Driven off the Road by M.B.A.s. “Lutz’s main argument is that companies, shareholders and consumers are best served by product-driven executives. . . . The auto industry is actually a terrific proxy for a trend toward short-term, myopically balance-sheet-driven management that has infected American business.”
5. On discovering you’re an android. “The idea that the self, or the conscious mind, emerges from the workings of the physical structures of the brain – with no need to invoke any supernatural spirit, essence or soul – is so fundamental to modern neuroscience that it almost goes unmentioned.”
6. Power powers promiscuity, new study finds. “With power comes confidence, and for both men and women, such confidence often results in marital infidelity, a new study finds. The study, to be published in an upcoming Psychological Science, found that among 1,275 Dutch professionals, those with the higher-paying, higher-ranked positions were more likely to have thought about or actually engaged in extra-marital entanglements, thanks to boosted levels of confidence. . . . The powerful see the world, themselves, and other people in a different manner and they act in a different manner than do those who lack power.”
7. 6 premature predictions of tech failure. A list of 6 technologies / products that industry leaders wrongly predicted would fail.
8. The Brain on Trial.
When your biology changes, so can your decision-making and your desires. The drives you take for granted (“I’m a heterosexual/homosexual,” “I’m attracted to children/adults,” “I’m aggressive/not aggressive,” and so on) depend on the intricate details of your neural machinery. Although acting on such drives is popularly thought to be a free choice, the most cursory examination of the evidence demonstrates the limits of that assumption. . . .
[W]e are not the ones steering the boat of our behavior, at least not nearly as much as we believe. Who we are runs well below the surface of our conscious access, and the details reach back in time to before our birth, when the meeting of a sperm and an egg granted us certain attributes and not others. Who we can be starts with our molecular blueprints—a series of alien codes written in invisibly small strings of acids—well before we have anything to do with it. Each of us is, in part, a product of our inaccessible, microscopic history. . . .
When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt. . . .
The legal system rests on the assumption that we are “practical reasoners,” a term of art that presumes, at bottom, the existence of free will. The idea is that we use conscious deliberation when deciding how to act—that is, in the absence of external duress, we make free decisions. This concept of the practical reasoner is intuitive but problematic. . . .
After all, there is no spot in the brain that is not densely interconnected with—and driven by—other brain parts. And that suggests that no part is independent and therefore “free.” In modern science, it is difficult to find the gap into which to slip free will . . . because there seems to be no part of the machinery that does not follow in a causal relationship from the other parts.
Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease. . . .
While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life.
Instead of debating culpability, we should focus on what to do, moving forward, with an accused lawbreaker. I suggest that the legal system has to become forward-looking, primarily because it can no longer hope to do otherwise. As science complicates the question of culpability, our legal and social policy will need to shift toward a different set of questions: How is a person likely to behave in the future? Are criminal actions likely to be repeated? Can this person be helped toward pro-social behavior? How can incentives be realistically structured to deter crime? . . .
We will never know with certainty what someone will do upon release from prison, because real life is complicated. But greater predictive power is hidden in the numbers than people generally expect. Statistically based sentencing is imperfect, but it nonetheless allows evidence to trump folk intuition, and it offers customization in place of the blunt guidelines that the legal system typically employs. The current actuarial approaches do not require a deep understanding of genes or brain chemistry, but as we introduce more science into these measures—for example, with neuroimaging studies—the predictive power will only improve. (To make such a system immune to government abuse, the data and equations that compose the sentencing guidelines must be transparent and available online for anyone to verify.)