January 12th, 2010

[LINK] "He fled Vietnam in a boat, now he's breaking new ground as a bishop "

This Joe Friesen article at the Globe and Mail points to the interesting phenomenon of how even the established religious denominations are changing, as native-born populations stop being active and immigrant populations appear.

Twenty-six years ago, Vincent Nguyen was a boy dreaming of freedom and a chance to become a priest when he and 19 relatives piled into a wooden fishing boat and prayed they would evade Vietnam's coastal patrol and slip out to sea.

Tomorrow, Father Nguyen will become Canada's first Catholic bishop of Asian descent, as well as its youngest bishop, at a ceremony in Toronto that's being hailed as a landmark moment.

Father Nguyen will be named an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Toronto with responsibility for the areas of Scarborough and Durham. As the only non-white Catholic bishop in Canada, he will also be counted on to represent the hundreds of thousands of Canadian Roman Catholics who have immigrated from Asia, Africa and Latin America and feel as though their voices are unheeded in the church's upper echelons.

"The Catholic Church in Canada is growing through Asian people," Father Nguyen said.

"The fact that I'm an Asia-born bishop will bring my experience into the conference of bishops and maybe I can contribute to the issues the church is discussing. The church is very mindful of issues of immigration."

[LINK] "Facing backlash in Europe, Canada hunts for new seal market in China "

This news item isn't very surprising.

Despite all the hubbub about the European Union's sanctions on the seal hunt, Europe is a relatively small market for Canadian seal products. But China is a big buyer, with greater potential and none of the uproar about animal rights that has made the seal industry a pariah in the Western world.

That's why Fisheries Minister Gail Shea and executives from five Canadian seal-industry companies are in China now, teaming up to work the market that could ensure the survival of Canada's moribund hunt. "There's huge market potential here," Ms. Shea said.

Tonight, Ms. Shea will introduce a seal-fur line at a fashion show at the China Fur and Leather Products Fair in Beijing. She'll also try to ease red tape for seal meat imports.

"They have a completely different approach over here," Bernard Guimont, president of Magdalen Islands seal products exporter Tamasu Inc., said from Beijing. "That's why we think it's a market that for sure has a great future for us."

[. . .]

The animal-rights activism of groups that attack the seal hunt as inhumane, featuring such celebrities as Paul McCartney and images of red blood staining white snow, has won a ban in Europe. But despite efforts to reproduce the campaigns in Hong Kong, the movement has yet to take hold in Chinese culture, where a tradition of eating a wide variety of animals, including dogs, makes it relatively immune to emotional appeals to spare cute seals.

"The Chinese eat anything. And they simply don't understand why you would put one animal above another," said Wayne Mackinnon, chairman of DPA Industries, which exports Omega 3 seal-oil capsules made from harp seal blubber. "I suspect that over the course of the next decade, the Chinese market alone could take all the seal products that we could make."

Given that, yes, in the context of the general devastation of marine ecologies in Atlantic Canada by centuries of overexploiiation, hunting the seals is probably necessary, developing a Chinese market is probably a good thing. I just wonder why, if the European Union's markets are so unimportant, sealers and their backers were so outraged that the Union decided to ban a very unpopular product from its markets. Ah well.

[LINK] "Harper says Parliament brings 'games' and 'instability'"

Yes, our Prime Minister did say that.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is offering a new wrinkle on his reasons for suspending Parliament – the government can do more important work without MPs sitting in the Commons.

In an interview with Business News Network, the Prime Minister flatly rejected the notion that proroguing Parliament has left the country open to criticism it is not a stable democracy.

In fact, it is Parliament in a minority situation that is perceived by markets as unstable, said Harper.

"The games begin when Parliament returns," he explained. "The government can take our time now to do the important work to prepare the economic agenda ahead.

"That said, as soon as Parliament comes back . . . the first thing that happens is a vote of confidence and there'll be votes of confidence and election speculation for every single week after that for the rest of the year. That's the kind of instability markets are actually worried about."

The argument opens a new front in the rationale the Conservative government has provided for the controversial pre-New Year's decision to suspend Parliament until March 3, even though doing so kills a number of bills the government had been eager to pass.

Harper had previously cited a need to recalibrate the government's agenda as the economy moves from recession into recovery.

Harper repeated that argument Monday, but is now adding the instability of a minority government and the ability to avoid "the games" of Parliament as additional talking points.

The controversial decision has been criticized by commentators and newspaper editorials, and even drew a sharp rebuke from the respected British newsmagazine
The Economist. It accused Harper of stopping inquiries into allegations of torture of Afghan prisoners and suggested he was guilty of "naked self interest."

Parliament had been set to return Jan. 25 but instead will remain dark until after the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, returning Mar. 3.

[CAT] "Tiger mauls exotic animal owner to death"

This news has made the headlines here in Toronto.

A 66-year-old exotic animal owner from Southwold, Ont. was mauled to death by his Siberian tiger.

Elgin County OPP said the man had gone to feed the adult male tiger that was kept in a large pen around 3 p.m. on Sunday, when the 650-pound tiger attacked him.

"He was found by a family member, who managed to lock the tiger in a separate part of the cage and called us," said OPP Const. Tony Carlson.

The man, who was pronounced dead on the scene, has been identified as Norman Buwalda.

"We don't know what prompted the attack at this time, because there were no witnesses...my officers tell me the tiger was pacing back and forth in his pen. If that means it was agitated, I couldn't tell you."

Police say Buwalda was not wearing any protective clothing when he went into the cage.

"He was known in the community for having exotic animals," Carlson said, adding that the man also had a cougar and some deer on his property.

"He also had a second tiger at one time."

Amazingly, Buwalda's ownership of a pet tiger was entirely legal.

Carlson said the man appears to have the legal permits to keep such exotic animals on his property, and believes he may have sold other animals to zoos.

"It is a little strange to keep such wild animals, but everything seems to be in order. We believe he had the right equipment and paperwork."

[. . .]

Several residents filed a petition that led the Southwold Township council to pass an exotic animal control bylaw after a 10-year-old boy was attacked by a Siberian tiger, also on Buwalda's property, in 2004.

He was rushed to the hospital with serious head and neck injuries that he sustained while taking pictures of the animal for a school project.

Buwalda was leading out the tiger on a leash when the animal lunged to attack the boy and Buwalda lost his balance.

No charges were pressed at the time, but Buwalda, who was the president of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner's Association, fought the bylaw with the help his lawyer, Alan Patton.

"I was retained to challenge the bylaw, which we did successfully in the Superior Court of Justice. The bylaw was quashed on legalities, because it was vague in terms of what was an exotic animal," Patton said. "I am very sorry to hear that he passed. He was a very nice man who had an interest in large cats."

I hope that the animal isn't put down, not only because Siberian tigers are potentially threatened, but because the tiger was placed in an untenable position by its owner. When is it ever a good idea for an untrained enthusiast to keep a seven hundred kilogram predator with sharp, sharp teeth as a pet? Shakespeare weighs less than five kilograms, and he's quite mild by temperament, but when I give him his pills (he had a lower urinary tract blockage a couple of weeks ago, Jerry caught it in time, all's well), squeezing his jaw open, I can tell from the way he looks at me that if he was substantially larger he'd fight back. Maybe he'd even win.

The foolishness.

[LINK] "Biosphere 2's Second Chapter: Climate Change"

Many people on my friends list linked to this post showing photographs taken by Noah Sheldon of Arizona's Biosphere 2 complex, once intended to be a small-scale self-sufficient biosphere, since abandoned.

Biosphere 2 was built by Space Biospheres Ventures in the late 1980s at a cost of $200 million. The project was heralded around the world as the experiment that would eventually lead to the colonization of other planets. The concept was to create a sustainable ecosystem entirely sealed off from the outside world.

Inside 7.2 million cubic feet of sealed glass, several artificial environments were created, from desert to rain forest to a coral reef. Spanning 3.14 acres -- the size of several football fields -- the scale of the facility, which is about 25 north of Tucson, was unprecedented.

This David Knowles article at Sphere suggests that Biosphere 2 is still a worthwhile endeavour.

After a year of entropy, Biosphere 2 was sold to an investment company, which, in turn, allowed New York's Columbia University to manage the property. Under Columbia's supervision, the focus of the project shifted to the study of how the high concentrations of carbon dioxide inside the structures affected plant life. Biosphere 2, it turned out, was a great laboratory for tracking the effects of climate change on a number of different ecosystems.

"They were able to show that as more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, coral reefs are endangered and die off," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science at the University of Arizona, who now oversees Biosphere 2.

According to Ruiz, Biosphere 2's initial attempts at creating a fully enclosed system have produced a unique tool to study a similarly enclosed environment: Earth's. "Because of its scale, there is no other facility like it."

Researchers at the University of Arizona have made important findings about the effects of drought on varying species of trees planted inside the biosphere more than two decades ago.

"We like to say that the Biosphere 2 was built slightly before its time," Ruiz said. "But now, it has become one of the best places to study the effects of climate change."

Biosphere 2 has also regained its appeal as a tourist attraction, drawing nearly 70,000 visitors in 2009.

[BRIEF NOTE] On artificial intelligence

This Globe and Mail opinion piece, co-authored by Peter Singer and Agata Sagan, looks forward to the future of robots (for which, read "artificial intelligence"). Robots are becoming more and more capable, as they note.

Robots already perform many functions, including making cars, defusing bombs and, more menacingly, firing missiles. Children and adults play with toy robots, while vacuum-cleaning robots are sucking up dirt in a growing number of homes and – as evidenced by YouTube videos – entertaining cats. There is even a Robot World Cup, although judging by the standard of the event held in Graz, Austria, last summer, footballers have no need to feel threatened just yet. (Chess, of course, is a different matter.)

Most of the robots being developed for home use are functional in design: Gecko Systems' home-care robot looks rather like the Star Wars robot R2-D2. Honda and Sony are designing robots that look more like the “android” C-3PO. But there are already some robots with soft, flexible bodies, human-like faces and expressions, and a large repertoire of movement. Hanson Robotics has a demonstration model called Albert, whose face bears a striking resemblance to that of Albert Einstein.

What will happen, they wonder, if--perhaps when--robots start to evolve into complex entities, stop being objects and stasrt developing interiority, consciousness?

At present, robots are mere items of property. But what if they become sufficiently complex to have feelings? After all, isn't the human brain just a very complex machine?

If machines can and do become conscious, will we take their feelings into account? The history of our relations with the only non-human sentient beings we have encountered so far, animals, gives no ground for confidence that we would recognize sentient robots not just as items of property, but as beings with moral standing and interests that deserve consideration.

Cognitive scientist Steve Torrance has pointed out that powerful new technologies, such as cars, computers and phones, tend to spread rapidly in an uncontrolled way. The development of a conscious robot that (who?) was not widely perceived as a member of our moral community could therefore lead to mistreatment on a large scale.

The hard question, of course, is how we could tell that a robot really was conscious and not just designed to mimic consciousness. Understanding how the robot had been programmed would provide a clue: Did the designers write the code to provide only the appearance of consciousness? If so, we would have no reason to believe that the robot was conscious.

But if the robot was designed to have human-like capacities that might incidentally give rise to consciousness, we would have a good reason to think that it really was conscious. At that point, the movement for robot rights would begin.

These last two paragraphs refer to the famous Turing test, a scenario proposed by Alan Turing wherein a computer that behaved in a manner indistinguishable from a human being would be deemed to be an intelligent entity. One problem with the Turing test is that it doesn't allow for the possibility that a computer might be able to simulate a human being simply by being a powerful machine lacking interiority; a bigger problem with the Turing test is that consciousness hasn't been strictly defined.


[LINK] "Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps"

3 Quarks Daily's Azra Raza linked to Nicholas Wade's New York Times article "Deciphering the Chatter of Monkeys and Chimps". Non-human primates, it turns out, can be quite sophisticated.

Vervet monkeys were found in 1980 to have specific alarm calls for their most serious predators. If the calls were recorded and played back to them, the monkeys would respond appropriately. They jumped into bushes on hearing the leopard call, scanned the ground at the snake call, and looked up when played the eagle call.

It is tempting to think of the vervet calls as words for “leopard,” “snake” or “eagle,” but that is not really so. The vervets do not combine the calls with other sounds to make new meanings. They do not modulate them, so far as is known, to convey that a leopard is 10, or 100, feet away. Their alarm calls seem less like words and more like a person saying “Ouch!” — a vocal representation of an inner mental state rather than an attempt to convey exact information.

But the calls do have specific meaning, which is a start. And the biologists who analyzed the vervet calls, Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania, detected another significant element in primates’ communication when they moved on to study baboons. Baboons are very sensitive to who stands where in their society’s hierarchy. If played a recording of a superior baboon threatening an inferior, and the latter screaming in terror, baboons will pay no attention — this is business as usual in baboon affairs. But when researchers concoct a recording in which an inferior’s threat grunt precedes a superior’s scream, baboons will look in amazement toward the loudspeaker broadcasting this apparent revolution in their social order.

Baboons evidently recognize the order in which two sounds are heard, and attach different meanings to each sequence. They and other species thus seem much closer to people in their understanding of sound sequences than in their production of them. “The ability to think in sentences does not lead them to speak in sentences,” Drs. Seyfarth and Cheney wrote in their book “Baboon Metaphysics.”

These primates all fall short of producing true language, nonetheless.

Once the infrastructure of language is in place, as is almost the case with monkeys and apes, the faculty might be expected to develop very quickly by evolutionary standards. Yet monkeys have been around for 30 million years without saying a single sentence. Chimps, too, have nothing resembling language, though they shared a common ancestor with humans just five million years ago. What is it that has kept all other primates locked in the prison of their own thoughts?

Drs. Seyfarth and Cheney believe that one reason may be that they lack a “theory of mind”; the recognition that others have thoughts. Since a baboon does not know or worry about what another baboon knows, it has no urge to share its knowledge. Dr. Zuberbühler stresses an intention to communicate as the missing factor. Children from the youngest ages have a great desire to share information with others, even though they gain no immediate benefit in doing so. Not so with other primates.

“In principle, a chimp could produce all the sounds a human produces, but they don’t do so because there has been no evolutionary pressure in this direction,” Dr. Zuberbühler said. “There is nothing to talk about for a chimp because he has no interest in talking about it.” At some point in human evolution, on the other hand, people developed the desire to share thoughts, Dr. Zuberbühler notes. Luckily for them, all the underlying systems of perceiving and producing sounds were already in place as part of the primate heritage, and natural selection had only to find a way of connecting these systems with thought.