The Eyes of Us Are Upon Texas

So far it’s a good news / bad news story. The Texas Board of Education did vote to drop the requirement that weaknesses of scientific theories be taught. This is good news. Students will no longer be taught that Intelligent Falling is an alternative to the Theory of Gravity because gravitons, while predicted, have never been observed. Oh yeah, silly me, this clause was only used to teach that Creationism was an alternative to evolution.

However, several amendments have been introduced and tentatively passed, including one the board agreed to which states that students shall “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.” That rather opens up the anti-evolution rhetoric. A second amendment provides for teaching that there are different estimates for the age of the universe. While this is true (currently science says the universe is 13.7 billion years old, give or take 0.12 billion years), I suspect the intent is to allow the introduction of biblical estimates closer to 10,000 years old.

So while the general science guidelines have been tightened up, there are still some intentional holes poked in the lid to allow religion to be taught as science.

Dan Quinn of the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network put it well. He said the board “slammed the door on creationism, then ran around the house opening up all the windows to let it in another way.”

The final votes on these amendments are today, so there’s still some hope that sanity will prevail. The board is pretty evenly divided. Seven of the board’s 15 members are closely aligned with social conservative groups and have openly voted and advocated for teaching Creationism as science. Therefore, the remainder of the board has to unify against them for the amendments to fail. Personally, it seems that the mere notion that people’s social convictions are driving science education policy should be a wake-up call to somebody.

Stay tuned…

UPDATE: Quoted from a press release issued by the Texas Freedom Network

TFN President Kathy Miller: Texas State Board of Education Adopts Flawed Science Standards

The word “weaknesses” no longer appears in the science standards. But the document still has plenty of potential footholds for creationist attacks on evolution to make their way into Texas classrooms.

Through a series of contradictory and convoluted amendments, the board crafted a road map that creationists will use to pressure publishers into putting phony arguments attacking established science into textbooks.

We appreciate that the politicians on the board seek compromise, but don’t agree that compromises can be made on established mainstream science or on honest education policy.

What’s truly unfortunate is that we now have to revisit this entire debate in two years when new science textbooks are adopted. Perhaps the Texas legislature can do something to prevent that.

This just sucks… I guess I’m supposed to feel good that it could have been worse. But somehow it seems that ignorance shouldn’t be what you’re fighting when you’re talking about school curricula. So much for leaving no children behind.

FINAL UPDATE: For further analysis of what the implications of the outcome in Austin are, you should read this and this.

Hope vs. Fear

This is a fascinating article about a study showing that there is a correlation between people seeking aggressive end-of-life care and their religious convictions. I initially assumed that people without strong religious beliefs would be more inclined toward last ditch efforts following a terminal prognosis. It would seem to make sense that people confident in a blissful afterlife would find death an acceptable transition point. However, the study shows just the opposite:

While most patients, religious or not, avoid aggressive end-of-life therapy to prolong their time on Earth, a new study shows that religious patients may seek it out at three times the rate of non-religious patients…

The article goes on to attribute this as believers wanting to give God every last opportunity to provide them with a miracle. But this makes no sense to me. Why would an omniscient and omnipotent god be thinking that if she just makes it ’til Tuesday, then I’ll have time on my calendar to cure her. This sounds more like desperation or fear to me. People either unable to cope with the inevitability of death or fearing death itself.

Now one of the traditional roles of religion has been to assuage peoples’ fear of death and/or fear of the unknown. So I’m inclined to wonder if what the study really uncovered was a correlation between a predilection for anxiety regarding the unknown and a religious bent.

Star Trek vs. Matrix

New Scientist brings us a report of emerging virtual reality concepts that engage all five of the senses. The ability to create immersive audio and visual experiences is rapidly gaining maturity, but engaging smell, taste, and touch is significantly further off—perhaps a couple of decades or more. But it’s not too soon to begin considering the shape of those future experiences.

Immersive A/V experiences are already demonstrating that creating truly shared environments is exceptionally challenging. Conceptually, many envision these shared environments as variations on the Star Trek Holodeck theme. That is, you and your friends would enter a physical room which would somehow manifest the sights, sounds, and ultimately other senses in much the same way that they are manifested in the real world. However, this is an inherently problematic and difficult (and hence expensive) solution to the problem.

Consider that in order to render all of the sensual information in any virtual reality, the target experiential information must first be captured, digitized, and stored. Initially, this will be done by people trying to capture holistic experiences from the real world, but over time, I expect that sensory snippets will be stored in a vast library for mixing and matching of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. This snippets will be mashed-up into re-creations of reality or construction of novel virtualities. This simplifies the capture process as I only need to actually digitize the smell of dog poop once. The next time I just need to identify it. The early inklings of this model are already starting to show up related to audio-visual elements.

However, given that I have (or will have) these digitized sensual experiences, how will they be rendered? It is important to recognize that all human experience is ultimately a complex series of nerve impulses received by the brain. If those impulses could be perfectly simulated, there would be no way to distinguish reality from its virtual counterpart. In a sense, this is similar to the Matrix type model, but doesn’t require the context of being enslaved by machines.

It follows that the more transformations of sensory data that are required, the less real the experience will become and the more complex the rendering will become. This gets inordinately more complex when you start introducing multiple people into a shared experience. Consider simply viewing a scene in 3D. If you go to a 3D movie today and a hummingbird flies off the screen and hovers in front of your face, everyone experiences the bird as hovering before their own face. But that doesn’t cut it as a shared reality simulation. I should see the bird hovering in front of your face, and so should you. This means that each person’s perspective would need to be accurately projected into the holodeck in a way that didn’t corrupt anyone else’s view. That’s hard to do without actually animating matter, which is how Star Trek ostensibly does it, and which is a technology more than a few decades away. It’s far simpler if every individual has a contained environment (e.g. goggles) and the computer calculates and renders the perspective views specific to each individual. That same premise should hold for all the other senses as well.

This would mean that minimally, shared reality experiences would best be had by multiple people in individual pods or suits that provide close proximity sensory stimulation. But if we take that just a wee bit further… Futurist Ray Kurzweil talks at length about the coming singularity. A point in the not to distant future where we interface computers directly to our nervous system. In this world, the stimulation required for virtual reality immersion would be transmitted directly into your body.

Obviously this sort of technology brings with it some heavyweight ethical, moral, and sociological issues. It even opens many philosophical issues on the true nature of reality. All of which I’m sure will provide ample fodder for talk shows and Congressional sub-committees for years to come.

However, from a technology perspective, despite how much I’d prefer to live in the Star Trek universe, I believe we are destined for the capabilities of the Matrix universe. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t still boldly go where no man has gone before. Just that we are likely to do it without leaving the house.