Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.

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What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

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A literary return to the Namib Desert

I managed to finish off two more books for my 2021 Book List. It’s still fewer than I had hoped for this year but it’s better than nothing.

The Sheltering Desert (1956, translated 1957) by Henno Martin

This is a memoir which recounts the story of two German geologists stationed in South West Africa, now Namibia, which I bought during my trip to the Namib Desert. When WWII broke out, they wanted no part in it, nor did they wish to be interned by the police, so they resolved to hide out in the Namib Desert until it was all over. The pair of scientists and their dog travelled into the desert and remained there for two years until malnutrition forced them to abandon their plan.

Along with the descriptions of life in the desert are several philosophical musings on human society, evolution and the nature of man. A lot of it feels quite dated but I really enjoyed the discussions on the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Even back then, many people living in cities and towns had little actual contact with wild, or even tame, animals; meaning no familiarity. Martin observed that, after time in the desert, with only the wild animals as their neighbours, they began to see the complexity in their behaviour and recognise the animals as being as unique as other people.

As the pair are scientists, the story is more than just a tale of survival. Scientific curiosity is evident in many observations and trips which include one to investigate why the rocks of a distant mountain were so white. If you’re at all interested in outdoor activities or the Namib, I think it will make for a great read.

Why Vegan? (2020) by Peter Singer

Why Vegan? is a collection of essays by the controversial, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I had already read his classic book Animal Liberation but only after already becoming a vegetarian. These essays also revolve around the topic of animals and diet and span several decades, the earliest from 1973 and the most-recent from 2020. It’s a quick read, with some essays being incredibly short, but a very important topic.

Singer’s ethical approach is about avoiding causing unnecessary suffering, so several essays discuss cruelty in farming. In his introduction he does note that several practices documented in older works, such as Animal Liberation, have now been outlawed but not all problems have been fixed. In an essay from 2006 on chicken farming, he describes how many chickens are still kept in cramped conditions, standing in their own filth, where some starve to death and many others are boiled, alive and conscious, due to failures of the stunning system and manual oversight. These are things we ought to know if we are to be informed consumers.

If someone has never thought much about the practice of eating animals, because it is usually an unquestioned aspect of human society, then this collection will serve as a good introduction to the topic. This collection doesn’t go deep into details (I would recommend something like A Plea for the Animals to expand on the topic.) but it raises many of the questions and concerns which everyone should keep in mind. Regardless of the answers we eventually settle on, this is a pressing topic which we must think hard about and not allow the suffering of our fellow creatures to be hidden behind the veils of tradition and ignorance.

Updating my blogroll

The blogroll is on the main page of my blog and links to various other sites that I consider worth reading. The sites which were on there were from many years ago and included several which I no longer read. When I noticed that, I saw that it was time to update it. Here’s a new list of blogs which are worth reading. Go check them out.

Animal Emotions

Animal Emotions is written by Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, United States and co-founder of the Jane Goodall Institute of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (ethology being the study of animal behaviour). The blog deals with various aspects of animal behaviour, welfare and ethics.

The Bowman Lab

This is the blog for the laboratory of Jeff Bowman from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the US. This is a blog that I started following more recently to get a wider view of microbial ecology. The Bowman lab works on different aspects of microbial ecology with many posts focussing on analytical tools as well as marine and polar microbial ecology.

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2021 Book List

This has been sitting around for so long. It has not been a good year for reading books and everything on here was actually read months ago. Due to the long time between reading and writing, I’m afraid I can’t give as good of a review as I usually would as my memory of the books is not as clear.

2020 Book List
2019 Book List
2018 Book List
2017 Book List

14/12/2021 Added Life at Rock Surfaces, Science in the Soul and The Amber Spyglass.
31/12/2021 Added The Sheltering Desert and Why Vegan?

Zoo City (2010) by Lauren Beukes

Zoo City is a fantasy, crime thriller set in South Africa. Some people (known as zoos), who have done something bad, get a magical animal companion and a special ability. The animal companion marks zoos as criminals, which does result in a certain degree of discrimination, but they are also sometimes valued for their magical skills. The protagonist of Zoo City, Zinzi, has a sloth companion and has the ability to locate missing items.

My impression of South African writing in general is that it’s pretty dry; mostly dealing with realistic social issues, poverty, crime and so on. South African fantasies and fantasy authors seem to be pretty rare or at least not very well-known to me. Zoo City makes a nice change of pace. It has all the good aspects of magic and fantasy but in a familiar South African setting. It’s a refreshing combination.

I found the whole book very enjoyable for the reasons described above. In addition, I like the idea of animal companions, although it’s a pity one has to do something bad to get them. I’ll also note that the ending of the book is a bit darker than one would normally expect but it does also fit the themes. It was a great first read for the year.

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Quicklinks: crows, climate and computers

There’s an interesting story about crows from the BBC (found via io9) about a girl who regularly feeds crows. That wouldn’t be so remarkable if the crows weren’t now giving her gifts in return. We probably shouldn’t be too surprised. Crows are highly intelligent and have long term memory of people. There are wild animals that can think and feel and reciprocate a person’s gifts. If people had more interactions with animals we would probably hear more such stories. At the moment they tend to be limited to pets.

One of my recent quicklink posts (well… December) mentioned both the need to reduce consumption of meat to reduce (drastically) our impact on climate change and the strong opposition that meets such proposals. In a heartening, though non-binding, move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have released their 2015 scientific report to the US Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services which explicitly mention reducing consumption of meat due to the effect on climate change. This is covered in Slate.

In the world of computing it seems like we are gradually winning the fight against unnecessary and invasive internet surveillance. Not necessarily because everyone has been convinced but because the people fighting surveillance are a cohesive movement. And then there’s also an interesting piece on how discussion about security vulnerabilities in code can be prevented laws. The main feeling of the article is frustration at how laws prevent important ethical discussions.

Science: Behind the scenes

I’ve collected a few weird stories from the world of science that are interesting. They’re not science stories about discoveries and research but they’re science stories about what goes on behind the scenes.

Spam and mailing lists

Let’s start with an amusing tale. We’ve all got spam before and scientists are no exception. Fed up with the constant spam from one particular journal, Dr. Peter Vamplew submitted a fake article, originally written by David Mazières and Eddie Kohler, that expressed his frustration. The article was 10 pages long and merely consisted of the sentence, “Get me off your fucking mailing list” repeated throughout. Continue reading

Is there life after a mistake?

It’s a question worth thinking about due at least one story in the news. Ched Evans was convicted of rape, sentenced to five years in jail and released after serving half of it. He is a football player who is once again training with Sheffield United and that has caused a certain amount of drama. A television presenter resigned as a patron of the club, followed by two others, as well as a sponsor threatening to leave, and an Olympic medallist says she will want her name removed from the stadium if he is re-signed. Is that the right course of action? Continue reading