u Notes from the Underground: August 2007

On the morality of non-vegetarianism

Friday, August 24, 2007

The subject of animal rights has come up again, but I don't even have a definitive opinion on animal rights (let alone the definitive argument), so I'll talk about a slightly different issue - killing animals for meat. I am quite against the killing of animals for meat (or for any other reason other than self-survival, basically), and especially factory farming. I am against it, but not enough to say that the govt. should step in and outlaw factory farming (partly because I am a libertarian, the type who sees unintended consequences everywhere).

However, non-vegans can soon be spared the nagging moral doubt that they are doing something horrible everytime they're eating meat. The solution is cloning of animal meat tissue using stem cells. Here's Ray Kurzweil, a visionary if there ever existed one, on the benefits of stem cell cloning:

Another exciting opportunity is to create meat without animals. As with therapeutic cloning, we would not be creating the entire animal, but rather directly producing the desired animal parts or flesh. Essentially, all of the meat--billions of pounds of it--would in essence be from a single animal. What's the point of doing this? For one thing, we could eliminate human hunger. By creating meat in this way, it becomes subject to the "law of accelerating returns," which is the exponential improvements in price-performance of information-based technologies over time. So meat produced in this way will ultimately be extremely inexpensive. It could cost less than one percent of conventionally produced meat. Even though hunger in the world today is certainly exacerbated by political issues and conflicts, meat will become so inexpensive that it will have a profound effect on the affordability of food. [link]

Disregard all the hyperbole about "the law of accelerating returns" and solving human hunger in one fell swoop. The basic point is that using stem cell cloning can be used to produce meat much more efficiently than it is today, and besides it will solve the problem of animal flatulence contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Once meat can be produced this way, factory farming will stop and people will accept much more easily that killing animals for food or pleasure is just plain wrong.

To me, this is a classic example of how technology can make moral progress (in addition to material progress i.e.) possible where all the preaching in the world wouldn't get you there.

A vision to kick Google's ass

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Do take a look at the keynote talk by Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia, at the O'Reilly Open Source Conference. He talks about how he intends to "democratise" web search, so that one can create web search engines as easily as one can set up web servers today using the LAMP stack. He's an awesome speaker, with a fluency that clearly tells you he's spent a lot of time researching and thinking about what he's saying. One big problem I see with private players being the only big guys in search is that research gets hampered because of lack of access to the kind of data that Google or Microsoft have. If crawls of the web become open source, and so do user clickthrough logs (after suitable privacy preserving transformations), I would expect grad students and research teams to hugely benefit from such data. Good news for me!

I heart Jimmy Wales larger philosophy - I think there are rich enough parts of the world that can afford to provide public goods that can benefit everyone, including themselves. I have been thinking for a while now that the quality of a society is nothing but the quality of its public goods - these things are too important to be left to the governments alone to produce.

And while you're at it, you may also want to check out Steve Yegge's super funny talk on branding