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Norway to the future
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
 
I'm outta here
Today, futurenorway will move, and change name. While the topics will be the same (and yes, the archives will of course be exported), I am moving over to my own server (well, it's hosted, but nevertheless), using my own MoveableType (well, it's the freeware version, but nevertheless), installed all by myself (a little proud, but it turned out to be a bit more user friendly than my last attempt to install phpWiki -- eventually that will come as well).

Finally, no more banner ad at the top (and so far no Google ads).

The new site is

butterflyeffects.org

The tagline is

"Things that may or may not affect you future"

And the author will still be your's truly. See you there!

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Mullah Høybråten does it again
Norway's minister of health once again demonstrates how to abuse political power to enforce your own intolerant points of view. After having kicked 40% of Norwegians out on the street from bars and restaurants (I am personally looking forward to see the number of pneumonias and lost productivity when the stormy weather arrives in October), he has now copied Bush' way of handling progress in the biotech research field. Daginn Høybråten, member of a christian missionary sect, has replaced his strongest critics on the Norwegian Biotech Advisory Board, a supposedly impartial board of scientists and stakeholders regarded as a number one authority in biotech legislation and debate.

Høybråten has replaced two of his strongest critics on the board, and appointed his Christian Democratic party colleague Torleiv Ole Rognum as vice president. The tabloid Dagbladet comments that this is the first time two men have held the top positions on the board. Jan Erik Solbakk, one of the critics who was thrown out, characterizes the change as an exact copy of Bush' manipulation of the Council on Bioethics. Høybråten now has to explain himself to the parliament on his behaviour in the case.

Norway has a tradition for adhering to strict principles when it comes to ethical grey areas. Our biotech law states that

Formålet med denne loven er å sikre at medisinsk bruk av bioteknologi utnyttes til beste for mennesker i et samfunn der det er plass til alle. Dette skal skje i samsvar med prinsipper om respekt for menneskeverd, menneskelige rettigheter og personlig integritet og uten diskriminering på grunnlag av arveanlegg basert på de etiske normer nedfelt i vår vestlige kulturarv.

which translates into

The purpose of this law is to ensure that clinical use of biotechnology is utilized to the best for humans in a society where there is room for everyone. This shall happen in coordination with principles of respect for human value, human rights and personal integrity and wihtout discrimination based on genetical heritage on the grounds of the ethical norms of our western cultural heritage

Which is a statement that opens for several interpretations. It is easy to agree on statements such as "best", "room for everyone", "respect for human value", but the connotation may vary quite significantly from person to person. Therefore, it is imperative that an advisory board on the ethics of biotech has integrity. This integrity can only be acheived if the board represents the different views on the issues at hand.

The law is one of the most restrictive in the world. It does not allow anonymous sperm donation, the option to choose your donor, nor the option of using the sperm from a newly deceased partner. Fertilized eggs have to be destoryed after five years. There is a total ban on research on fertilized eggs and stem cells, as well as therapeutic cloning to produce healthy cells for genetically caused diseases. Diagnosing fetuses for malignant genes is for some reason only allowed when the mother is over 38 years old. Biological material collected for research has to be destroyed after the research has been completed (there are some exceptions to this rule). The law has been criticized by many, the National Research Ethics Committee have in an official statement called the law "inconsistent in the choice of norms used".

Norway's biggest newspaper writes that "it is not unnatural to ask why not the law has opened for 'foreign cultural' ethical and cultural ideals". OK, it may be a valid point, but the ideals of western society regarding personal freedom, the right to choose your own destiny and a free society with equal rights for everyone is one of the more useful thoughts created by our culture. Going to lengths to accomodate dark age points of view should of course not be encouraged. I am more shocked (but not really surprised) to see that the board is made up of only genetically Norwegian members. Not very representative, considering that we have significant ethnical minorities living here.

Lack of integrity and inconsistency is leading Norway into an awkward (and in the long term dangerous) ethical position. No matter how hard we try to keep our own hands clean, we are part of a larger setting, and biotech is a global issue. When -- not if -- treatments to diseases based on research on aborted fetuses or cloned cells are developed, then what do we do? Do we refuse our own citizen's the right to these treatments? Result: massive flow of people going to Sweden to get the treatments. Only the ones who can afford it, of course. Do we reserve the right to not take part in the research, but use our oil money to buy the treatments for our citizens? The allegory of the hen, the grain and the baked bread becomes rather tame in comparison.

We have a law about abortions in this country. It states that, until the twelfth week of pregnancy, an abortion can be performed if the mother is willing. Please stop me if my logic is skewed here, but if we allow abortions on fetuses, and do not allow murder, then fetuses under twelve weeks old are not considered living beings. The definition of life is an awkward one, but if we use this as a proxy, then a lump of cells is not life per se. This law is consistent with international practices on abortion, and can be considered ethically acceptable according to western cultural ideals. Placing a price on a life is impossible (even though insurance companies do it all the time). If we can justify abortion, then how can we disallow using cloned cells to save lives? If a fetus has been aborted, and this has not been considered murder, what is then wrong in using the remains to save a life?

As a transhumanist, I reserve my right to use applied technology to overcome the limitations of the human condition. I own myself, and I have a copyright (now that word will get a new meaning) on what defines me as me, namely my DNA. I should be able to decide what to do with it, until it is no longer mine, which usually is through reproduction. If cloning some cells from my body, even starting the process of life formation, I believe I should be allowed to do that, not only for therapeutic reasons, but also for augmenting my biological functions. This is of course still far fetched, but discussing the ethics is a useful thought experiment, as the rate of scientific and technological progress is increasing exponentially. The purpose of the biotech law, "to the best for humans in a society where there is room for everyone ... in coordination with principles of respect for human value, human rights and personal integrity ..." are from my ethical point of view consistent with the right to modify ones body with the help of technology. Giving those who want it a chance to live better than well will create better humans, who in turn are able to function for to the best for humans in society, keeping room for everyone in coordination with respect for human values.

Firstly, Høybråten needs to be chastised for abusing his power. Secondly, in the future, transhumanist viewpoints must be allowed on the Biotech Advisory Board.

Phew, some steam off there. And right now, my Winamp started playing Bowie's I Demand a Better Future.

Oh, and the link in the title here is a part of a googelwhack.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2004
 
We come in peace
Finally, after months of planning, rewriting and generally bogarting the much-needed bylaws, the Norwegian chapter of the World Transhumanist Association was approved today. Huzzah! Invites went out to the Norwegian members of the WTA, and the first positive reply came after 20 minutes (Chemometrics; now where's my Wikipedia; ah. there. Now I feel enlightened). A small step for transhumanity, a slightly bigger step for me (been planning this a while).

PS: You really want to invest in this blatantly underpriced piece of art from a young, beautiful, aspiring (and starving) artist. Yes you do. Go fetch.

PPS: The Blogger staff have added a commenting service (probably some time ago), as you may see below I am running two (for now). Use the new one please, I wish one didn't have to click twice, I'll double check the settings at some later time. Still no option to get email replies when I provide my insightful answers to your memes, too bad.

PPPS: Sleeping four hours really jump starts my brain, for some weird reason. Wonderful ideas keep popping into my head today, from origins unknown. I should sleep less and work more, but then again.

PPPPS: For the linguistically adept: It sure is easy to leave the first s out of Transhumanist when hacking away at the keyboard. Makes you think.

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Two pieces of brain snacks
As with everything else I stumble upon, everyone seems to have seen, read and commented it, so without further ado:

They're made out of meat - Terry Bisson

Weird Flotsam - CheeseburgerBrown (Kuro5hin)

Short stories, big thoughts, fun reads.

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Monday, June 14, 2004
 
Bowie, London and lagers in the park
Looking at my posts the last months, I can see that writing only about future trends and science news is giving me a writers block; it demands a certain plan from the start when writing, and for one who has no idea where a newly started sentence will end, this is not the way to go.

Over to London. On Friday, that is. Finally, it's been almost five years since my last trip there. My first trip was in '97, I was attending IB, and the teacher dubbed the trip "The Cinderella trip"... We were a bunch of bright, just-been-allowed-to-drink, horny teenagers, and this teacher had us be back at the hotel by midnight. We were protesting, no compromises. Midnight. No two o'clock reasonably early curfew we might have respected. While we had some great days, I remember lying in a park in Stratford-upon-Avon just before attending Henry V at the theatre, drinking cheap lagers, trying to kill the headache from the day before. Two and a half hours of a WW1-staged Shakespeare play was a bit too much that day... I remember the flowers, this was in September, just after princess Di had been killed; I was thinking more about what all the money could have been used for than mourning her death.

The second trip was in '99, with the shipping interest group at my business school. We were a bunch of bright, heavy-drinking, horny twentysomethings, and this time there was no curfew. We were, however, supposed to visit a number of companies, often very early in the morning. I remember wearing an old suit, sunglasses, smelling last night's Jägermeisters each time I took a breath, drinking cheap lager in the park, going to Hippodrome and thinking that was the coolest place I'd ever been.

This time there will not be curfews nor company visits. Only the predicted severe hangover from the Bowie concert on Thursday; and until then, worrying about whether it will rain cats and dogs that day (lousy spring in Bergen nowadays). I'm visiting some friends, with some friends. I will finally get to visit British Museum, and have some lagers in the park.

My thesis is progressing, albeit rather slowly. Several reasons for this. First of all, I find spending time with my girlfriend even funnier than reading about complexity theory (and I really like complexity theory -- and I am seriously not ironic here). Second, since I already have a job, the incentives for finishing off the last tiny part of my studies are not too great; I do of course need the title (Siviløkonom falls somewhere between a bachelor and a masters degree), but I don't need it for getting that essential first Real Job. Third, and bear with me on this one; I really want to spend some time on this paper. For the first time in my life, I am writing about something that really interests me, so I tend to get sidetracked into related concepts all the time while researching. I also have plenty of reading to do (not much systems theory in our curriculum), so it will be some time before the first words are written in Word. At the time being, I am structuring things in the fabulous 3-D concept mapping software used at Ray Kurzweil's page, called The Brain. I hope I will be able to export the information there to another mind manager program when structuring the thesis itself, but it will in any case be a nice reference for use now and later.

And what am I writing about, you ask? Still without a research question, I tend to give a new explanation every time I talk to someone about this. The broad topic is learning organizations, more specifically I am writing about how tacit knowledge evolves through self-organization in a complex adaptive system. Or something like that. With related subjects being everything from Artificial Intelligence, Chaos Theory, System Dynamics, Evolutionary Biology, Emergence, to practical applications through the use of collaborative software such as wikis, blogs and instant messaging, this will take some time, but the path is definitely more relevant than the goal in this case.

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Saturday, June 05, 2004
 
From one bad smell to another
I was just at Garage; that is, Bergen's number one rock hangout/pub/bar/nightclub.

Before: a thick mist of cigarette smoke covered the basement floor, making everyone's eyes run, people coughing whilst lighting up another fag and having their beer at the same time. No need for dry ice smoke at the concerts, we made it ourselves. And we loved it.

Tonight: almost vomited from the smell of sweat, farts, urine. People were obeying the new law, placing their pints wherever they saw a spot while popping outside to have a few drags. Luckily, the weather was OK, so no trouble yet. I just try to imagine the smell and lovely atmosphere one rainy day in October, when you cannot go outside without the fear of catching the mother of all colds; people cramming in the doorway to get a whiff of warmth while sucking at their cigarettes. Sweaty, slightly pissed off, wet people trying to enjoy a beer.... lovely.

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Friday, June 04, 2004
 
The beer religion
This idea popped into my mind this spring, and that everyone I talk to seem to dig: the establishment of the religion called "Øl" (Beer). Not a religion per se, we can register what is referred to as a trossamfunn (belief society) with the local authorities, and having done so -- eventually -- get state sponsorship (the Norwegian state sponsors religious groups per member on a yearly basis). If this picks up, we can become a quite large group practicing Beer, and the state will pay the organization for it. Too good to be true? Maybe, but at least it is worth our best effort!

So, to all my Norwegian friends and readers. Here is an initial draft to get the idea spreading. Please download and send me comments, revisions, ideas, and -- if you want to join -- your name, birth date and address, so that we can show the bureaucrats that we are many and ready to roll. Spread the word to whomever you think may be interested, giving them the address to this post so that they can download and comment themselves.

Oh, one thing. I will not make a very good leader for this religion, and to be honest, I don't think I want to be. I just want to set the snowball rolling, so whoever wants to become leader for what just might become a large movement, drop me a line (that is j o n m a r t i n - a t - g m x d o t n e t).

When we have had some responses and people wanting to join, the letter will be finalized and sent. Remember, for this to work, we need all the brainpower we can muster; devil's adcovates to show why this shouldn't work, creative minds to create our versions of the ten commandments, marriage and funeral rituals, and so on, people who know the law, people who are good public speakers, persons who can design flyers, persons to hand out the flyers to beer-drinking people in bars and everything else.

There is not much info on the criteria on how to start a religion, the only step-by-step article is this one from Gateavisa, which explains the formalities and a few problems to be overcome. Do your best to dig up more info, and let us make this into a great collaborative project we can be proud of when it appears on the front pages of our biggest tabloids (come on, it has to do with alcohol and religion, they love this stuff).

So, ask yourself (and your friends):
- Do you like beer?
- Are you not religious enough to be a part of our state church?
- Would you like to see the money the church gets from having you as a member go to a better cause?
- How about letting an organization who uses it to arrange religious meetings involving beer get it?
- Tired of mr Bondevik and Høybråten's way of dealing with 'tolerance'?
- Here is a chance to beat them at their home field!

In the beginning, there was hops, malt and barley...

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Better Than Well
I should be writing my thesis, and I should be finalizing a database for my job, but I seem to end up doing all the other things that are occupying my mind, as one often does when one has important things to do.

So, today we signed the papers needed to register Norsk Transhumanistforbund (Norwegian Transhumanist Organization - the local chapter of the World Transhumanist Organization. This is our second attempt to get it registered, but given that my first application was almost without documentation, this one will go through the system like a breeze. More info will follow when Brønnøysund have done its job (should be within next week).


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Yes, commander
Stephen Hawking definitely needs an upgrade. Try out Scansoft's text-to-speech demo; it even has Norwegian as an option. Not bad at all.

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It might just help your daily planning
Stumbled upon this. Someone claims to have the formula for tiredness. Take a small test and get a 24-hour graph of how awake you should feel. Neat, unfortunately it assumes that you have a steady sleep cycle. I go to bed between nine in the evening and six in the morning sometime, so I guess I cannot judge whether this test could be useful for planning when to study, etc. Maybe when I start working...

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Thursday, June 03, 2004
 
Mellow rebeginnings
Like crawling out from under a rock; peeking at the all too bright sun, this is. Someone sent me some well placed words, hu probably won't read this, but thanks anyway. And whilst sitting here in the dark, spreading wikified memes to this small, select audience, the block still looms. So many thoughts, ideas, projects evaporating bit by bit while feeding the brain with junk data. Alas, where to start.

Ah, the cigarettes. While prone to forgetting from time to time that I do smoke, I cannot help but feel a bit sad about the new law. For me, no problem. I'll just not smoke when I go out, or go out when I smoke. The problem is that there will be no problem. In a couple of months, people will already have forgotten the past, adapting their lives to yet another minor adjustment in the system. The collective mind is neither especially bright nor has it a very good memory. For all it's worth, history is indeed written by the winners. The most successful memories get recorded, securing their place; imagine the mutations they must have gone through to end up chiseled in stone. Prehistoric times certainly have a blissful appeal.

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Sunday, April 25, 2004
 
More Mars
Spirit and Opportunity have been quite silent lately, but Mars is still full of interesting things. Meanwhile, you can read Oliver Morton's piece on two craters seemingly showing recent liquid water. The pictures are quite convincing, but then again I am a layman.

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Sunday morning bliss
Surfing randomly around in a Sunday state of mind...

I know just about everything has been said and done about the Lord of the Rings already, but unicast got me laughing to this Commentary By Howard Zinn & Noam Chomsky for the FOTR extended etition. The required snippet:

Chomsky: A terrible thing the Orcs do here, isn't it? They destroy nature. But again, what have we seen, time and time again?

Zinn: The Orcs have no resources. They're desperate.

Chomsky: Desperate people driven to do desperate things.

Well written and well worth some minutes of your time (after all, you had almost forgotten about LOTR by now, hadn't you)

Or, if you are aiming for political incorrectness, you can always memorize the results of this study, showing that solving mazes can tell us something about the competitiveness of women.

Coffee, black, hot. Now.

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Friday, April 23, 2004
 
Today's weirdest idea
This has been popping into my mind lately: Looking for a new hobby, and do not mind freaking people out? Start collecting DNA!

It's basically the perfect hobby: you collect something, it's free, every item you collect is unique and it doesn't take up much space nor time. Start asking friends/celebrities/politicians for a hair instead of an autograph. When you in some years can decode their genomes, you will be able to sequence the DNA on your own computer, going from a collection of hairs in plastic bags to computer files detailing everything about a person. Then you can clone them and keep them in your basement, or share them on your favorite p2p network.

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EPA Approved ICBMs
"Thus, if the Minuteman III ICBMs have to be used in some future nuclear war, their rocket motors will not pollute the atmosphere. EPA regulations do not apply in foreign countries, so no changes are being made to reduce the harmful environmental effects of the nuclear warheads." (via WorldChanging.org)

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Thursday, April 22, 2004
 
"One short-term memory booster please." "Will that be pill or implant, sir?"
With brain implants on their way, it is good to see that scientists are discussing the ethics of boosting brainpower with drugs. We already have and employ several chemicals to affect our brains, from pills which affect our pain threshold, Prozac and its numerous off-shoots, and as the article mentions, Ritalin. Coffee, cigarettes and wine may increase your brainpower, yet are socially accepted. "[H]ow is taking a drug any different?" the article asks. Why stop with drugs, I say.

In what way would a physical implant affect us as persons? Most people will agree that people on pain killers or Ritalin are the same person, albeit a bit better suited to function in our world. Prozac is coming close to being a fad, you probably know someone who currently takes or has taken mood-altering pills (maybe you take them yourself). Is the person a different person than before? By different, I do not just mean that they are acting differently, I mean are they the same person. I believe that for the vast majority, the answer is yes (if you have taken or are currently taking mood enhancers, do you consider yourself to be yourself?).

Chemicals can be scary. They can be volatile. They can cause adverse effects. Still, we consider that the upsides of drugs larger than the eventual downsides. Being addicted to branded pills (not counting the various pseudo-brands of, say, E) is the only socially acceptable way to be a drug addict in today's society. I will not go into the debate on the ethical sides of being allowed to feel better as long as the pill is produced by a respected pharmaceuticals company as opposed to in secret labs in The Netherlands, let's just say that I am very sceptical towards putting chemicals into my body- that includes the mildest painkillers.

Often, doctors do not even know why a drug works the way it does. As an example, beta blockers are supposed to increase blood pressure and heart rate, while they work in the exactly opposite way on heart attack victims. Same, goes for Ritalin, I wonder who first thought of giving that hyperactive kid some speed to calm down. Using electronic implants that work on a limited area of the brain, doing what it is supposed to do, and nothing more, may be a better way to avoid adverse effects than by pouring your body full of molecules that are free to wander around the blood stream, connecting to whatever is possible, affecting the complex system being a human body. As with any complex system, changing one of the inputs -- be it by drugs or electronics -- is dangerous, as the butterfly effect can set things in motion that no one had thought of. Just imagine what our most used "explant" -- the device that we are now addicted to as it removes the need to be physically in the same place to communicate -- the mobile phone, might do to our brains in the long term.

With neuroscience research progressing day by day, we learn more about the inner workings of our brain, in more detail than ever. Electronic implants are already in use for therapeutic reasons, so the parallel to therapeutic drugs is there, implants are just some years (but not many) further down the road. This requires not only the researchers, but also each and every one of us, to take a stand on what we feel is acceptable and ethically correct. For me, the method used is more of a second nature, except that I am risk-adverse enough not to risk my sanity by using chemicals. Looking at the mother in Requiem for a dream, becoming a cyborg seems to me to be a better alternative.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004
 
Scenarios for society
From Z+Blog, the BBC is adopting scenario planning to societal issues in the TV series IF. What if...Almost totally unrelated, I am listening to the radio, and they just mentioned that Norway got it's first printing press in 1643, as the last country in Europe, a good 100 years after our Icelandic neighbours... what if... The same radio program also does some scenario musings:
  • Tenk om Bondevik ble diktator...
  • Tenk om staten overtok barna våre...
  • Tenk om vi ikke hadde hatt amerikanerne...
  • Tenk om vi ble 120 år gamle...
  • Tenk om Golfstrømmen forsvinner...

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The Page 23 meme
From Ross:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

However, on account of these consequences, reason takes away people's hope for eternal life and the only real and unshakeable certainty it offers is the certainty of extinction -- the fate of everyhting in the universe


This was from Between Security and Insecurity by Ivan Klíma.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2004
 
Spices for the brain
So this is why India is racing ahead in the brainpower market: Curry Could Save Brain Cells. Betterhumans.com explains:

Curry may help fight brain diseases by enhancing an enzyme that protects brain cells from oxidative damage.

Studying the effects of a compound in the spice on rat neurons, Italian and American researchers have found that it might help protect against such diseases as Alzheimer's.

The researchers—including Michael Schwartzman and Nader Abraham from New York Medical College in Valhalla—think that the compound could help prevent neurodegenerative conditions that affect the elderly, although they say that much more research is needed.


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Helping cells to die
Another tip-off from our excellent national public radio P2 on research currently in progress at Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen: Karl Johan Tronstad, PhD is working on modified tetradecylthioacetic (3-Thia) fatty acid effects on programmed cell death. Fatty acids function as structural components of cells, serve as metabolic fuel for mitocondria, and participate in intracellular singaling. Some fatty acids, like Omega-3 have been found to have a positive effect on the health of humans.

Mitocondira are the power plants of our cells. They use the oxygene we breathe to metabolize sugar and fat into energy the cell can use, but recent research has shown that they play a significant role in the programmed death of the cell as well. Every cell in our body is programmed to die after a certain period of time, but mutations and failures can cause the cell to fail to self destruct. Cell death requires energy, and if the mitocondria are damaged, the cell may not be able to initiate the disassembling procedures, and this can lead to cancer. The goal of the research on the modified 3-Thia acid is to be able to increase the energy production in the mitocondria, and as such help the body to kill cells when it is time. The acid has been sucessfully tested on animals and humans wihtout adverse effects, and testing is now on the way to clinical trials on leukemia patients. While not a revolutionary cure for cancer, this treatment can increase the life quality and expectancy of many people.

For more information, you can read a paper by the research group on Modified fatty acids and their possible therapeutic targets in malignant diseases.

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A warm welcome to Norway's new nanotech lab!
Today is the official opening of the Microtechnology Research Laboratory (MRL) in Oslo. The lab is a SINTEF-backed project located in Gaustadbekkdalen in Oslo, and part of the Oslo Technopole umbrella organization. While the name says 'micro', the facilities are equipped to do nanoscale research as well.

The project is about two years after schedule, as the construction of the building ran into problems caused by the clay-rich ground on the site. The lab building and installed equipment is one of the biggest investments into research in Norwegian history, totalling an estimated 250MNOK (~30MEUR). An additional 20 to 30 MNOK has been spent to minimize the vibrations in the building, an essential factor when doing research at very small objects. It is the first building in Norway dedicated solely to micro- and nanoscale research.

The working areas of the centre will include:
  • Microsystem design and technology development
  • Development of new sensor-principles
  • Centre of excellence within radiation- and imaging-sensors, and optoelectronic systems
  • Small-scale production of microsystems
  • Education: Cand. Scient./Dr. Scient.
Combining resources and researchers from SINTEF, the University of Oslo, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and the University Hospital of Oslo (Rikshospitalet), the goal is to encourage and facilitate technology innovation by bringing together production of microtechnology and nanotechnology research in one place. 70% of the projects planned are Norwegian-initiated, says project manager Anders Hanneborg to NRK P2 today. Much of the financing is based on private capital, Hanneborg states, but it is hoped that breakthroughs can be applied to less profit-hungry fields as well. Some projects are underway in the micro-sensor field, both implanted insulin-sensors for diabetics patients and CO2 sensors for cars and -- hopefully -- children's classrooms are being developed. To a layman like me, the sensor technology seems similar to active RFID chips, the microsystems containing both a sensor and a chip to store and relay information from the sensor to a wireless scanner.

The centre is also part of the FUNMAT project (National Consortium for Research within Functional Materials and Nanotechnology). The FUNMAT consortium has been operating since 2002, and has helped Norwegian hitech-companies to several commercialized technologies. The consortiums goal is research on materials for sustainable energy production and environmental technology, nanotechnology and biomaterials. This is in line with the EU's 6th Framework Programme for Research and Development (6FWP) on materials technology, an important driver for developments of new technologies.

These are good news, as Norway has been lagging behind its neighbours in nanotech investments the last years. If you are interested in what happens in and around Norway, Nanoforum has a document giving a very good overview (PDF-en) of the status of Scandinavian nanotech research from 2003.

Some related articles (in Norwegian):


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Train your own AI by chatting to it
I often wish I was studying artificial intelligence. Whether it is because it involves several beautiful fields of science, the philosophical aspects of what to answer the day your PC claims it has become alive all of a sudden, or just the sheer thrill of trying to play god is not important. Nevertheless, the subject consists of many easy to grasp, difficult to understand and hard to learn subfields. While it is quite possible to get a basic knowledge of concepts such as neural nets, genetic algorithms or expert systems from a little reading in bed, the science behind is so far way beyond my reach. I therefore welcome any news about developments in the more layman-applicable parts of AI research.

KurzweilAI.net (via The Speculist) writes about the merging of two tools for AI enthusiasts. Combining open source software, HTML-like structures, databases and relationships, this seems to be a development at such an aggregated level that even I should be able to play around with it.

OpenCyc is a database of general knowledge, a big collection of concepts and their assertions, as well as an ontology of the concepts. Basically, the data stored in the database can be accessed by an AI program. Instead of entering information into the database manually, it is preferable to 'teach' the database by talking to an AI program (a chatbot) in a natural language.

AIML is an XML structured markup language. It is used to structure the knowledge base of ALICE chatbots. It includes tags for a category/concept, a pattern which represents what a user might say to the chatbot to trigger the identification of the concept, and a template for a response to the user. To use this knowledge base better, the chatbot can benefit greatly from an inference engine such as OpenCyc.

Enter project CyN. CyN is an AIML interpreter that communicates with the OpenCyc engine, enabling the training of a chatbot in a natural language. The project team describes their vision:

One of the first questions that interested programmers want to know about OpenCyc is what kind of natural language interface is there and can they talk with it. And one of the things that interested programmers who learn AIML ask is how to make their chat bots appear smarter. CyN tries to address the desires of both communities.

Having been inspired by the book I am currently recommending to anyone who cares to listen, Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, Gordon at the Speculist has been musing about enhancing the Ramona chatbot by distributed computing and training. Interesting thoughts, after all teaching a mind of any sort requires quite an effort and a shared training will increase reliability and performance.

The CyN project seems to pave the way for small groups to achieve such goals, where individuals train their personal AIs, and the AI relays knowledge to one or more aggregated AI personalities, being a synthesis of its individual members. Maybe future developments will allow a global inferrence engine containing the combined knowledge of several trained-by-humans niche AIs. With everyone talking to their personal AI, both these and the community AIs can develop the global database of all knowledge knwon by AIs. From such a synthesis of human memes, values, morale and knowledge, it should not be long before the AI reaches a sophisticated level, asking the age-old question of Where should we have lunch?

And it's all open source...

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Sunday, April 18, 2004
 
I've been blogrolled
Satisfying my ego by looking at the referrer links from my site stats service, I just found out that I have at least one reader who has not been persuaded verbally to start reading. He even added me to his reading list "as it is written by a Norwegian, and it's always nice to find something exotic. I've known Swedes, Finns and Danes but the only Norwegian I knew was a guy with a hobbit hairdo. In my high school."

Hobbit hairdos are of course very popular here in Norway, and right now I wish I had a camera (or at least a mirror) to show you all how my neckwarmer is coming along... Heh, and I'm exotic. If I had a eurocent for each time I heard that, I would have.... one cent.

Oh, and the blog is worth reading, been missing some tales from the crypt - er- lab. He's missing an RSS feed though, so I have to visit manually until he clicks yes in the apropriate box in his blogger settings.

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New commenting service
I've just added a new commenting service from HaloScan. I don't think the functionality is radically different (no choice to get emailed when people comment or reply to a comment), but the layout seems a bit nicer, and it includes a trackback service.

I really want a system that allows trackbacks to be sent automatically when linking to another blog, and a commenting system a la a messageboard, or at least with some sort of notification system. I used MovableType when blogging from Milan, and Pia showed me some of the functionality I didn't know about here the other day. Being a control freak, I want it running on a server where I have totalitarain control. Since Xiando (my Linux-guru who ran the Milan blog) seems to be a bit slow on responding to all my various stupid requests for playing around with content management systems, I think this will have to wait until I have moved back home and got my server room (wet dream) set up with my own little web server.

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Libraries launch "welfare iTunes"
Public libraries in Oslo and Bergen have launched an online library of Norwegian music. It does (of course) only work in Microsoft Internet Explorer with Media Player, but I hope this is only temporarily (after all, librarians dig Linux, don't they?). The funniest part was nevertheless the fact that a song that is being listened to, is virtually checked out of the library; you will have to wait until the other borrower finishes listening to borrow the song.

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Friday, April 16, 2004
 
My first contribution to Wikipedia!
I'm so proud. I was working on a school paper on constructing corporate strategy scenarios for the students' welfare organisation (SiB), and as always checked what Wikipedia had to say on the issue. Lo and behold, there was no article! (quite senstational as Wikipedia is very comprehensive; for my home town buddies, you can contribute to this article for example). Well, not anymore. Check out my proud work on Scenario planning.

One day this will be a tiny part of an Encyclopædia Galactica...

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Would it bother you to see this man having sex with a chicken?
is one of the questions you have to answer in this morality test. Gives you results in the same from as the political compass.

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Thursday, April 15, 2004
 
Real cutie
On a blogging roll today (woke up at 0700 for some weird reason), from Robotic Nation Evidence, I give you (shouting in Japanese style)Team Osakas hand standing (amongst other skills) robot! Quite impressive, indeed.

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Twilight Zone revisited
This made my day and made me think at the same time (strange feeling) -- there is something sinister going on in Norway these days. Our trademarks have for as long as anyone cares to remember; high prices, high salaries and did I mention high prices (a litre of gasoline costs something around 1,2 Euros). And now, for the third time in two year (dramatic emphasis beign added) Supermarkets are cutting the price of Beer!! Yes, beer! One of the few ways to enjoy life that still is legal in this country. What is happening? They are banning smoking, closing pubs early and scaring the life shite out of most people by whatever causes cancer this week. And then they lower the price on beer?

I am inclined to believe that this is our Christian Democratic Party's work; they are planning to sedate us before taking over completely... And I will bite the hook, happily. Oh well. Cheers!

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Implants approved
The FDA has approved human brain implant devices:

The idea is not to stimulate the mind but rather to map neural activity so as to discern when the brain is signaling a desire to make a particular physical movement.

"We're going to say to a paralyzed patient, 'imagine moving your hand six inches to the right,'" [Cyberkinetics chief executive Tim] Surgenor said.

Then, he said, researchers will try to identify the brain activity associated with that desire. Someday, that capacity could feed into related devices, such as a robotic arm, that help patients act on that desire.

It's misleading to say such technologies "read minds," said Dr. Jonathan Wolpaw, of the New York State Department of Health, who is conducting similar research. Instead, they train minds to recognize a new pattern of cause and effect, and adapt.

"What happens is you provide the brain with the opportunity to develop a new skill," he said.



Cool, I say. Cool.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
 
Freaking you out on a Wednesday
Writes The New York Times; Oman's Oil Yield Long in Decline, Shell Data Show. Despite advanced technology, like (Norwegian pioneered) horizontal drilling, Oman's oil fields are going empty. Update: From the comment by AMH: BBC writes about Norway's oil fields going empty on the same day as I wrote this piece. Good timing and well worth a read)

There are several articles being written on declining oil production, but people seem to do nothing else than barely taking notice. To quote Stupid Evil Bastard, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? Going nuts about a boob at the Superbowl, caring about your fifteen minutes of fame, reading tabloids, yet barely noticing that -- if we do not advance at several levels; technologically, ecologically, ethically and intelectually to name a few -- there will be no more oil in the world whithin the scope of your lifetime.

Argh. Peak Oil has been discussed for ages. Let me quote a few sacry passages from Life After the Oil Crash:

Almost every current human endeavor — from transportation, to manufacturing, to electricity, to plastics, and especially food and water production — is inextricably intertwined with oil and natural gas supplies.



It is estimated that the world's population will contract to between 500 million and 2 billion during the Oil Crash. (Current world population: 6.4 billion)


Anytime an avowed leftist and liberal icon like Michael Moore is in complete agreement with a member of the Bush administration, it's safe to say the shit has hit the fan.



If I ruined your day, good. You will somehow thank me for it when the shit starts to land on rich people's platters. In the meantime, start spreading the word, and start saving for a self-sustained house...

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Dude, where's my flying car?
Ah, the bliss of disneyesque future dreaming... Check out this art by 20th century artist Arthur Radebaugh.

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Norwegian tech update
Norway's most prominent aerospace company plays a small part in the Darwin project. They are working on noise reduction in the signal processing.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004
 
Eye piercings next?
Fashion trends is not my favourite cup of tea. This post from Futurismic caught my attention, though. I've always been wondering when the fashion avant garde will take up piercing their eyes. Not there yet, but surgeons in the Netherlands now provide eyeball jewelry.

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Saturday, April 10, 2004
 
Hot air balloon basket, anyone?
Brilliant scientist not included.

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Progressive thoughts from the southwest
I have long ranted about how old school a monogamous marriage is. Not only are they unrealistic when you look at divorce statistics (actually, I'm impressed by all those who do not divorce, they have managed to take a correct life-long decision based on almost no data), they are the result of several hundred years of piousness and indoctrination. In today's Stavanger Aftenblad (that's down in our Bible belt, which kind of makes me wonder what their agenda is), they take a stand for removing the prohibition on polygamy. The journalist argues more or less around the classic reasons for polygamy; being able to support widows in societies where there is a shortage of men and the tolerance for immigrants who already have several wives. He also comes with a moral reason many people can agree to:

Hva er det moralsk overlegne i et system som ikke har noe å utsette på en mann som har barn over hele byen, men som truer med fengsel hvis han vil gi alle barna den beskyttelse som bare gifte foreldre kan gi? Hvis vårt statsbærende parti har rett i at ekteskapet er et stort, nesten hellig gode, hvorfor kan vi ikke dele det med flere?


Why should not we be able to give all children the right to the security married parents can give? If the state sanctions the sanctity of marriage as a holy good, why is it denied from some?

The act of setting a new life into this world is serious business. A pregnancy is considered a right, and people do from time to time get married as a direct consequence of an unplanned pregnancy, again taking the decision to marry on a weak basis. The really sad part here is that the people who end up in these situations more often than not are people who are not at all suited to be married, even less suited to be parents. Sure, they might learn how to give their kid love, but what about security and a proper upbringing in a well-furnished house? Getting pregnant should not be a right for everyone, in much the same way we should have certain criteria for the right to be a citizen and to vote (but that is another story). There should be some minimum requirements as to the security the parents can bring this kid, an assessment of their mental, monetary and practical capabilities to foster the child. I know I'm ranting here, but I tend to get provoked when I see teenage mothers with small trophy children, believing that the guy who picked them up one night on the club actually is a suitable father. I also do not have all the solutions, as requiring a license to get pregnant smells a bit too totalitarian. Some things that may get things in the right direction might include:

1. Change the concept of marriage to be a time-definite union, with the option to renew. Let's say that if you get married, you get married for 7 years. Say the girl is pregnant at the time of marriage. If the strenuous work of early childhood care is too much pressure on the young mother or father, and he/she is thinking that it is the other persons fault, then maybe, just maybe, they will be able to hold together for seven years (also, the penalties for breaking the bond should be quite severe, economically). Voilà, the kid is 'secure' until he/she starts in 1st grade. If the parents after seven year still have not grown tired of each other, they have the option to renew for just seven more years. Voilà, the kid is 14, not the best age to see your parents separate, but better that being 12 and thinking it is your fault (if you also know that your parents are living together on a seven years 'lease' you could be expecting, even welcoming it). Another seven, and the kid is 21, ready to leave home.

This is just a thought experiment I do from time to time. I am not saying it is the best way to do it, or if it would work. But to me, it seems that adjusting the institution of marriage to something more in line with today's expectations, and giving people the possibility to commit to another person for a limited (how scary isn't 'till death do you part???) time, might make more people happier in total at any given point in time.

2. Almost the point of the journalist above; why only two people who are the legal sponsors of a child's life? Granted, the child is a product of their genes, but this is really a minor point. People adopt, and are able to show as much love for adopted children as for their own. Also, if the parents break up, only one person is left with the responsibility/right to raise the kid- usually the mother. It is then up to her to solicit help from her family and friends. How about giving family, but perhaps even more so, friends, a possibility to commit themselves to a child? Many young people live in collectives, they are part of tight-knit groups of friends which might mean more to them than their blood-line. They might even have spent quite some time in each others' beds and so on. Combined with the pragmatic notion that monogamous relationships seldom hold for more than a few years, how about the ability to start a child-raising poly-something (searching for a good name here, but lost... a club? hive? collective? polypolygamy? N:N-clique? update: the besserwisser word for group marriage is apparently polygynandry.) where everyone is responsible for providing the child with what parents should provide? Maybe with some additional rights for the actual mother, perhaps the father as well. Just think about the possibility of having a legally appointed babysitter or three, to share the more sleep- and fun-depriving parts of parenthood. Or, from the other side, the possibility to sit there as a godfather, teaching the kid the things a parent shouldn't be teaching its kid (but that the kid should learn nevertheless). This is, of course, just another thought experiment.

Oh, well, enough ranting for today. Off to barbecue the Easter lamb.

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Friday, April 09, 2004
 
The Swedes do it again
Sweden seems to be racing ahead in the gene-research area. So much for our great and protective and reactionary laws in this country. Now, researchers at the Karolinska Institute have identified a gene related to asthma and allergies (Swedish). Betterhumans have the details.

What does this mean for Norway? While these studies have not involved stem cells, the progress that is being done in Sweden shows how important a rational and positive approach to genetics research leads to positive results. When (not if) they discover a valuable treatment for a disorder based on research outlawed in Norway, what should we do? Should we deny our citizens the treatment because it is based on what our (primarily christian-based) ethics say is wrong? Or should we jump on the even more unethical bandwagon, letting other countries do the grey-area research, and wait to reap the benefits? The worst thing is that such an approach may just work in Norway. As long as we can feel good about ourselves for not making the world a more scary place (through allowing stem cell research), silencing any critique will be simple as long as we are allowed to purchase the treatments. Go oil! Go ignorance!

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Thursday, April 08, 2004
 
Sweden says yes to gengineered potato
In this article from Dagens Nyheter (Swedish) we can read that the potato with the catchy name EH92-527-1 have been approved for commercial growth by the Swedish Board of Agriculture.

It is the composition of the starch in the potato that has been modified. A 'normal' potato contains 85% amylopectin and 15% amylose. The EH92-527-1 contains respectively 98% and 2%, the increased amylopectin level produces a starch that is more efficient in industrial applications, and can be used in f.ex. paper production, while the by-products of the starch production can be used as animal food and fertilizer.

The potato has been grown in test crops since 1994, and the danger of an uncontrolled spread of the potato is small, as the plant does not reproduce using seeds, rather than growing from other planted potatoes.

Sweden needs a unanimous approval from the EU Commission to allow commercial crops of the potato.

The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation are skeptical to the new potato, saying that the proposed benefits do not sufficiently outweigh the risks. They are sceptical to the potato's immune system, its possible resistance to antibiotics, as well as the EUs laws on genigeneered products.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004
 
Synd, Gert

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Monday, April 05, 2004
 
Education on the right track
Most of the news about Norway's future are not about cutting edge biotech research, quantum computer projects and the like, unfortunately. So, I try to find trends in other places.

We are so few people in this country that one primus motor within a field can make a difference. Arne Trageton is such a figure. He has been pioneering computer-based reading and writing education for our 1st- and 2nd graders. Here in Bergen, we now have 2000 kids learning reading and writing on computers. (A quick look at some facts about Bergen shows that this is about a third of all the 1st and 2nd graders here). He has been touring around, and believes that within 5 years, learning to read and write on computers will be widely implemented in Norway.

(A personal note: I was staying up way too late yesterday, reading one of the transhumanist canon's main works, The age of spiritual machines by Ray Kurzweil. In his predictions for 2009, which was the last thing I read before falling asleep, this was his main point on education. Arne and Ray, I hope you are correct.)

This is also consistent with the latest white paper on education from the Ministry of Education and Research. The introduction to the policy draft states:

Vi skal styrke elevenes grunnleggende ferdigheter. De er redskaper for all annen læring og derfor avgjørende for videre utdanning og arbeid. Meldingen fremhever det å kunne uttrykke seg muntlig, lese, skrive, regne og bruke digitale verktøy. Slike ferdigheter er nyttige og nødvendige for å skape materielle verdier, men de åpner også veier til dannelse og livskvalitet som ellers ville vært stengt.



For the linguistically challenged, the main point here is that they want to strengthen the fundamental abilities of the students. The fundamental abilities include -- in addition to reading, writing and doing maths -- "using digital tools". The education minister have also focused on more hours for classroom teaching, more tests, a controversial decision to only have students get grades in their main tongue (we have two, slightly different, forms of Norwegian), and is trying to implement daily physical education to increase the overall health and learning ability of the students. Healthier and better educated people is and will remain to be one of Norway's most important assets, so these steps are definitively in the right direction.

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Sunday, April 04, 2004
 
What to do when you have too much money
Paul Allen seems to have an interest for natural science, and knows how to get some fun out of all his wealth. A while ago, we heard about him funding the next phase of SETI, but this is not the only project he has funded. He is a sponsor for one of the X-Prize (first private venture to 100km altitude with a 3-person reusable spaceship) competitors, is setting up the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, and is funding research towards providing a publicly available human Brain Atlas. All in all an impressive collection of science and fun on the edge.

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Rationalistic trend?
A minority of Norwegians consider themselves christian (.no). For the first time, more people have answered 'no' to the question whether they - from their own definition of the word - consider themselves christian. 49% say no, 47% yes.

At the same time, however, there is an increase in the number of people who believe that the ressurection of the Christ was a real event. Religion-sociologist Pål Repstad sees a trend that people are converting from christianity to other forms of belief, showing that Norwegians are not becoming less spitirual, but are (my words) shopping for new ways to find their meaning of life.

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Saturday, April 03, 2004
 
Scandnavian RSS celebrity deathmatch
I'm hooked on RSS now. I get fixed up hourly. I feel exhausted, transcended. My reading speed has increased, I think, threefold. Amphetadesk is really an excellent name for that program.

Let's take a look at how the Scandinavian countries' biggest news sites have adopted to the trend. I checked out whether the biggest newspapers in the three countries had their own RSS feed set up. Research was done via Google, with the search string "rss site:domain.name". When no results showed, I visited the respective page and did an internal search, which (lo and behold) did not provide anything more than Google. The links are to the pages where the newspapers present their feed service, not to the feeds themselves.

Norway:


dagbladet.no: Several feeds
aftenposten.no: Several feeds
vg.no: Several feeds
bt.no: One feed
ba.no : no source
dn.no : no source

(note: ba.no and bt.no are local papers, but as I am currently based in Bergen, these were included for my convenience. And maybe one or two other readers)

Sweden:


dn.se: Several feeds
aftonbladet.se: No source
di.se: No source

Denmark


berlingske.dk : no source
bt.dk : no source
politiken.dk : no source
borsen.dk: One feed

Quick conclusion: Norway seems to be the forerunner when it comes to news syndication. What is most surprising is that neither Dagens Næringsliv (dn.no) nor Dagens Industri (di.se) - the two countries leading business newspapers - have jumped on the bandwagon. Whether this is a policy decision, or just technological inertia, remains a mystery.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2004
 
Surveillance anarchy
9 out of 10 surveillance cameras (in norwegian) are not registered at the Norwegian Data Inspectorate. Now, even though a "Data Inspectorate" sounds 1984ish, they're the good guys here when it comes to defending privacy (they actually have some power). The news piece is short (and let's see if anyone follows it up), but a quote from the official states that registering your surveillance camera network is a minimum requirement, and if people are not able to follow the simplest regulation, they most likely do not follow any of the others either.

  1. One of these regulations is to clearly mark an area that is under surveillance. Not that it is very easy to spot these signs, but if you're alert, you should see them. Then consider that if you don't see a sign, you just might be at one of the 9 out of 10 places who do not tell you that you are under surveillance. Maybe time to start some camera spotting. Until someone with a digital camera and a GPS starts logging cameras here in Norway, you can take a look at some cameras to see what you should be looking for.

  2. I am no expert in the details of Norwegian law, but I doubt that evidence from a non-registered camera could be considered valid evidence in any court here. Meaning, the purpose of such private surveillance is even more perverse from the start.

  3. Will the lack of registration of surveillance cameras ease or hinder the possibility of linking them all together and start the ultimate reality show for the New Police State? This is one of the favourite paranoias of one of my privacy-advocate friends. I sincerely believe that such a situation is far off in any case here in this country, and any evil-doers would operate outside our Data Inspectorate anyway. It might even be easier to operate outside the government watchdog.

The fines for this violation should be heavy; this is after all a very basic principle in our privacy policies. Failing to enforce even such a simple regulation will throw Norway into surveillance anarchy.

The scariest part is nevertheless that most people here will never read this piece of news (unless some tabloid picks it up under the bold-typeset heading "YOU are being WATCHED" - which could serve some purpose right now). And even fewer will care. After all, "I haven't done anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide"...

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Tuesday, March 30, 2004
 
Art in your face
My good friend biofool over at LiveJournal posted a picture of a human-pig clone work of art from Patricia Piccinini. Checked out the pages, and found a work on stem cells. I don't dare to link the picture, the copyright was a bit harsh... click for yourself to see some deatils, that is actually NOT a real little girl!

I'm impressed. Hope the future will have room for plenty of creativity like this.

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All your RSS are belong to me
RSS is good. RSS is free. RSS saves time for information junkies like me. No more opening the entire bookmark list and filtering through junk to find the latest news. In a little while, hopefully no more cluttering of my inbox from various email newsletters. Get a newsreader now and feel the freedom.

Anyway. Since there are so many great sources on RSS/News aggregators/etc out there, Google is the best resource. Go fetch!

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Monday, March 29, 2004
 
The Sophie Prize to Wangari Maathai
Seems the prize-award season is on here in Norway. Here is another which fits the Norwegian image quite well, The Sophie Prize, this year awarded to Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai for planting 30 million trees through her Green Belt Movement. The prize money is $100K, which should be enough for some more trees, I guess. The prize is named after the main character in the most successful book about philosophy ever published in Norway, Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder.

In related news, our progressive neighbours allow therapeutic cloning while banning human cloning (in swedish). Thanks again, Sweden! I hope we will follow in your path soon...

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Sunday, March 28, 2004
 
Complaining Norwegians
Finn Bergesen dared say what oh so many here on the hill agree on. Norway is a nation of complainers he claimed, pointing out that while Norwegians are getting healthier every year, we become "sicker and sicker". Absentee rates are up; people are retiring at age 60 to 62 (the official age is 67, but various benefit programs allow people to retire early).

While one may disagree on NHO (Norway's largest employers' organization) on other issues, he hit the nail right on this time. Many people agree, but it is not common practice in Norway to pick on the sick. There is however a trend of coming up with a whole new pack of lifestyle-related sufferings, apparently because we work too much (Eurostat numbers show that Norwegians work the fewest hours per week in Europe)... A year ago, the focus was on burn-outs, now we are the victims of a "time pinch". While some of these sufferings might not have some basis in reality, the way the media plays them is really sad. The way we are portrayed as victims of our own lifestyle, victims of our aspirations to the perfect life, victims of the modern technological world does us no good. Time pinches may be real enough for a small number of professionals working late and trying to prioritize a cutting-edge job while having young kids. However, reading that 'everyone' is sick from this and that can make the average Norwegian rethink why he feels really tired, forgetting the fact that he was watching soaps until 2 in the morning, and blaming society instead. Self-fulfilling prophecies, thanks to the tabloids.

There is of course plenty of advice on how to avoid these problems: take regular breaks, learn to say no, carefully plan your time, get enopugh sleep, exercise and so on. I am however afraid that people trying to get out of a stressful situation by adopting a lot of habits that in themselves are time-consuming will not get results they want. If you have never used a day planner in your life, adding a PDA or Filofax to you daily routine may result in administration overload. Some people may find themselves even more stressed by such measures, when they could get better results by just not worrying too much. Ulcers come from stress, stress from worrying, and getting sick is definitely going to take a bite out of your available time and make you worry more, just like reading those articles about the time pinch will. Bad negative feedback loop.

One advice I have not seen, is that people should acquaint themselves with the technology which surrounds them at work, and learn how to use it efficiently. For the white-collars, this will most likely involve the computer that they spend all day in front of. Thinking a bit about how you work and trying to adopt new habits can be very effective. Most jobs involve tasks that are repeated at regular intervals, and the procedures to complete the tasks are often very similar, often only the input data varies (i.e. extracting data, preparing reports and so on). With only a small degree of planning and automation, the time needed can be reduced dramatically. A personal example:

In my first full time job, I was tracing missing invoices for import customs declarations for a logistics company. With a tremendous amount of open cases, most of the time was spent checking what papers had been requested and when. The rest of the time was used to send standard-text emails and sorting incoming paperwork from the fax. With just a minimum knowledge of programming, I used something as crude as a macro recorder (this was on NT 3.5) which only allowed me to do a series of mouse gestures, clicks and keyboard input, and then loop it. With a little tweaking and an Excel list with the information I needed for each case, I was able to automate the entire email sending procedure, freeing up about half my day. I could watch my computer send emails at a continuous (though not very fast) rate, while going over lists and improving the quality of the control. Now, while this may sound like more a case for the company to replace me with a computer program integrating the systems I was working on, such processes often take large amounts of time, and can be difficult to defend when budgeting.

My daily routine before automating did not allow me to look into any significant benefits of creating a few macros or even ad hoc tools, as all my time was needed to do the actual job. In the end, I used a few lunch breaks and a little unpaid overtime to develop my tools. I did this out of curiosity, but employers should appreciate that employees doing some serious meta-work might improve their actual work considerably. This takes skills and time, and should be assessed as a means to cut costs by increasing efficiency. However, everyone should not be required to hard-code VBA macros to improve their Excel/Word-based monthly report. A few templates go a long way, a few well-prepared and automated templates mad in cooperation between the user and an in-house developer may go even longer. Maybe there is room for internal consultants (part time?) who leverage their computer skills to help their coworkers work more efficiently?

So, go out there, try to make that machine your friend. Then tell your friends you made a new friend and teach them how to do it as well. Show it to your bosses. Enjoy clicking once, inputting a few numbers and getting that report out in five minutes instead of half a day...

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Saturday, March 27, 2004
 
Abel Prize awarded
Two days ago, the Abel Prize was awarded to mathematicians Michael F. Atiyah and Isadore M. Singer for their work on "building new bridges between mathematics and theoretical physics". The prize is awarded for

outstanding scientific work in the field of mathematics. The prize shall contribute towards raising the status of mathematics in society and stimulating the interest of children and young people in mathematics.


This should be saluted. The prize is named after Norway's most famous mathematician, Niels Henrik Abel, who died only 26 years old in 1827. He is primarily recognized for proving that there are no general solutions to fifth-degree and higher polynomial equations. Already on the 100th anniversary of his death, there were plans to establish a prize in his name, but history took as often before a bit longer to see this through, and the first prize was awarded in 2003. As there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, the Norwegian Academy of Science (which awards the prize) hopes that this prize can be seen as an equivalent honour. Although the Fields Medal probably will retain its status as the most prestigious award, the Abel Prize money (approx. 750KEur), as well as the less stringent award criteria, makes this prize a valuable trophy for any mathematician.

So, why am I talking about a mathematics prize where most of us do not even understand the topics the prize winners study? This prize is important for two reasons. First of all, maths deserves all the attention it can get. It is the most basic of all our knowledge of the natural world (someone would place logic before mathematics, fair enough). With our computers doing more and more of our daily calculations, it becomes more and more important that we do not lose the basic knowledge which enables us to actually make the computers do what they do. For me, it is easier to see the benefits of mathematics when it is applied in other sciences, so this year's prize is right up my alley. Although I do not have the cognitive capabilities needed to understand quantum field theories, I am able to appreciate the importance for such breakthroughs in the search for a grand unified theory in physics. And if it can be popularized down to my level by Feynman-like authors like Martin Rees, all the better. The magic of mathematics can be enjoyed even with a very limited basic knowledge (although a few good diagrams and Hubble pictures always come in handy).

Secondly, the field of international awards is a field where Norway is and should be strong. We are given the double-edged honour of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize, and although the Swedes award the rest of the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize gives us a bit of international attention well fitted to our 'national portfolio'. For every prize awarded by a Norwegian institution, the recognition of this country as a science- and research-friendly country is strengthened. It may take many years before this is widely recognized as a part of the Norway brand, but it is a step in the right direction (and by now you should have understood that my field of expertise is Business and Economics, more on the national portfolio at a later date). If the prize is able to fulfil its intentions about raising the interest for mathematics amongst young people, this would be the most important achievement of all. Math skills are a sad chapter here in Norway, and everything should be done to encourage bright minds to give the field a chance. With basic knowledge of the universal language, the future becomes a little bit brighter.

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Friday, March 26, 2004
 
Hello world
So, I have only a few months left of my studies. Time to grow up, get a job and worry about the future. No more drinking beer for breakfast, going to bed at five in the morning and studying too little for my exams while not really worrying. From my favourite viewpoint - the egoistical - the future doesn't really worry me. Let's look at some of the reasons why:

I have won the lottery of life. Over and over again, it seems. I am born and live in Norway. Norway, for those of you who don't know much about it - except stories about a freezing cold country where winter subsides eleven and a half months a year - is one of the best countries to live in on planet Earth. Considering we are about four and a half million people, only this privilege is better than a one-in-a-thousand shot. I am also equipped with a brain that seems to be very well adapted to the accelerating change we are experiencing. Far from being a genius; I am generally curious, have a tendency to learn new things fairly quickly and remember all sorts of important and unnecessary facts easily. People tell me that I am kind and have a great deal of empathy for people who are not as well off. I am male, which - even in this the best of countries - is still a slight advantage in society. Born in the more well-off suburbs of Oslo, I believe I have an advantage over other nourishing who might not want to give up their roots by moving to the capital (which, of course, is where most of the mover-and-shaker-jobs are). I have even been allowed a virtually free higher education (uni's are free in Norway, and the state provides you with almost enough money to live a good life whilst studying). All this calls for some kind of commitment.

In this country, the state takes care of you if you want to throw your life away. We are a welfare state, and have the incomes to make it work. Although the tax level would scare off most of the western world's elite (and is currently scaring off several of Norway's richest), we can proudly say that we have almost no poverty, an almost perfectly working free healthcare system, an almost tolerant immigration policy, an almost rational democratic system... (All the "almost"s are because we Norwegians love to rant about all that is wrong with our country. It's one of our favourite topics of conversation.) But, back to throwing your life away. With our social welfare system, you can actually afford to have your own apartment, and do a significant amount of drugs while playing Playstation all day, all while the state provides the money you need. You won't ever be well off or a shaping force of our society if you choose such a life, but neither will you starve to death. All in all a fairly sweet option, at least when considering the conditions of life for most of the world's population. Such a way of life is - thankfully - not the goal of most people here on the top of the world, thus avoiding a collapse of the system. Most people still get stuck in the never-ending quest to live the picture-perfect life of whatever their preferences are, be it the Friends-meets-Ally McBeal-utopian ghettos of web designers and wannabes in the hippest parts of Oslo or the not-caring-too-much-about-the-rest-of-the-world-as-long-as-gasoline-prices-don't-get-any-higher types of people. At least we are not killing each other in ethnic conflicts, or over access to fresh water (y'know, one of the new reasons to kill your neighbour). We even have a few competent people in significant positions (and quite a few of the contrary-- more on them later), and a so far steady supply of income from our beloved oil fields in the North Sea. All in all, we should have every opportunity to make sure this country stays the best country in the world. But are we?

I am still young and naïve enough to believe that I can make a difference, that I have something important to contribute to this world, that the world can become a better place for everyone, that cooperation still is the way to go... The egoistic viewpoint mentioned above will hopefully not be the viewpoint my musings. Who wants to hear about a spoiled little brat's life anyway. So before I get old and all my illusions fade, I will blog my way through happenings in the adventure of Norway to the Future. How are we handling our extreme wealth? Have we actually produced anything of value to the rest of the world lately (our most famous competitive advantage seems to be diplomacy and peace)? Is the rest of the world taking us seriously, or are we doomed to an existence as an insignificant upper class? Can we utilize our resources, political freedom and open society to make the world outside our borders a better place? This blog is as much for me as it is for you, as I seek some insight in these and other questions constantly popping up in my mind.

Considering myself a transhumanist, the main foucs here will be the ethical and rational applications of new knowledge, science and technology. I do not take a side in party politics, so I feel free to shoot from the hip in all directions when it comes to criticizing the pack of religious madmen ruling this country as well as any other policies I find irrational. Luddites to the dust heap of history, I say!

More on being a transhumanist, the new biotechnology law, how to live in a country with a lutheran priest as prime minsiter, and rantings on complany fellow citizens later.

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