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.

Continue reading

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.

Quicklinks: Following up Islam and vegetarianism

About two months ago, I submitted a post about the open mosque in Cape Town that included a short bit on how the idea of takfir can make Islamic conflicts worse, specifically with regard to ISIS (or ISIL or IS or whatever it calls itself these days). There’s a guest post on The Friendly Atheist that addresses the same point but taking a slightly different angle, saying that when some Muslim groups say ISIS is not Islamic they are not necessarily saying they are not Muslims. I doubt either perspective is completely correct but I should at least share the information.

Going further back, to last December, I described my experiences at a writer’s workshop, including my dismay at recent trends showing an increase in global meat consumption. This dismay is now reinforced by a recent article in The Guardian (found via io9) which summarises a report showing that to avoid climate change it is necessary to reduce the global consumption of meat. It’s not just a minor issue.

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, but a worldwide survey by Ipsos MORI in the report finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming.

It’s pointless getting an electric car or cycling to work without reducing meat consumption because you’ll be directing attention at the wrong problem. It’s like telling people to be careful because candles are a fire hazard but staying silent about a trend for indoor bonfires! Even when people do say or do something, the reaction to suggestions that meat consumption needs to be reduced are negative.

For example, see this discussion about the push back against meatless Mondays. Not only the objections often completely misguided but when you see complaints about how meatless Monday or stricter emissions standards are bad for the economy you know that that person has a completely short-sighted view of the world. Are short-term economics really going to take priority over long-term survival?

Writers’ Workshop in Stellenbosch

Mont Fleur

Mont Fleur

Near the end of last month, I went to Stellenbosch with some other members of the Division of Human Genetics to attend a writers’ workshop. I’ve already dealt with the academic portion of workshop in a post on the Human Genetics website, so this one will focus more on the casual aspects and some thoughts stemming from it. While we were there, we stayed at the Mont Fleur conference venue which is amazing. The staff are polite and helpful, the accommodation is clean and spacious and the food is unbelievable. All that in an incredibly beautiful setting. Continue reading

Quick links: Vegetarianism

Here’s a blog post containing a thought experiment about the ethics of vegetarianism that I found quite interesting. It was also written by a watcher of my blog; this blog is small enough that I do at least glance at each person who watches me. You are all important to me. I’d recommend reading the link but here’s a really condensed version of what it says.

If you were on one of two train tracks and were told continuing on your current would result in you hitting and killing a pig but you could change tracks to one where you would hit and kill a bean plant, most people would rather hit the plant. That’s an ethical decision where most people value animals more than plants. This is analogous to the situation in a shopping centre where you have the option of either buying ham or beans yet in that situation people do not go for the beans as often. This means at some point there is an inconsistency in the ethics of those people that would eat meat rather than plants but still avoid killing an animal when food is removed from the equation.

The other link I’ll share is a more practical one. Clean drinking water is a fairly rare commodity, particularly in Africa. A vegetarian diet can be produced with less water than a meat-based diet. This means become vegetarian (or at least reducing the amount of meat eaten) would have benefits with regard to water availability. This article shares that some water scientists are suggesting that mankind will be forced to follow a primarily vegetarian diet by 2050 in order for there to be sufficient water for everyone.

Debating plant ethics

A pansy, the symbol of the free though movement. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Some people might know that I became a vegetarian a few months ago for ethical reasons. In summary: many animals are sentient and capable of suffering and experiencing harm which means they are objects of ethical concern. It is unethical to cause harm to sentient creatures if it can be avoided. Eating meat is harmful to them, unnecessary for our survival and so ethically unacceptable. There are also health and environmental benefits to a vegetarian diet which are nice but were not the basis for my decision. That is all based on animal ethics. At least one person has now tried to start a debate on plant ethics. Continue reading

Eating animals is still wrong

There’s an article in The Atlantic written by two ex-vegetarians and one who is still a vegetarian but supports other people’s decision to eat meat. However I find their arguments that vegetarianism is not the best way to a healthy, ethical, and ecologically sound diet unconvincing.

The strangest of the three here is Nicolette as she still maintains her vegetarianism, strengthened during her early years as an ecological lawyer, but supports meat consumption after seeing well-run pasture and sustainable farms.

Animals can increase soil fertility, contribute to pest and weed control, and convert vegetation that’s inedible to humans, and growing on marginal, uncultivated land, into food. And as I visited dozens of traditional, pasture-based farms, and came to know the farmers and ranchers, I saw impressive environmental stewardship and farm animals leading good lives.

Continue reading