In 1920, Jackson Scholz set the men’s 100m world record at 10.6 seconds. The 100m race is one where progress is very hard; we’re getting towards the limit of human possibility. It’s very tricky to squeeze out another second or fraction of a second. Still, in 2009, Usain Bolt set the men’s 100m world record at 9.58 seconds.
Apart from the Bolt, who else today can run faster than Jackson Scholz? Well, the fastest 16 year old ran the 100m in 10.27 second. The visually impaired world record is 10.46 seconds. The woman’s world record is 10.49 seconds.
The point of this extended metaphor is that we are focused on the differences we see today: between teenagers and adults, between men and women, between the able-bodied and those not. But the difference that swamps all of these is the difference between the present and the past. In 1920, prohibition had just been instituted in the USA. Some women were voting for the first time, though most couldn’t (neither could most men, in fact). The British empire was at its height, communism had just triumphed in Russia (the only country in the world to legalise abortion), homosexuality was a crime in most places, GDP was about a 30th of what it is now, life expectancy was 54 in the USA and tuberculosis was incurable.
How dissimilar will the world look like in 2099, then? More dissimilar that any difference we can see by looking around the world today. People will think differently, act differently, and have completely different lives and opinions, to anything that currently exists.
Julian Savulescu brings an interesting and characteristically uncompromising philosophical perspective today to the Badminton scandal in which four pairs were disqualified from the Olympics for intending to lose their matches in order to obtain a preferred draw in the next round. The players were ejected for violating parts of the Players’ Code of Conduct that is set by the governing body of the sport: the Badminton World Federation (BWF). In particular, they were found to have violated sections 4.5 and 4.16 of the Code, which respectively prohibit “not using one’s best efforts to win a match” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport.”
Savulescu argues that the players should not have been disqualified, and that the rules for the draw should be changed. He is right the rules for the draw should be changed: they should be designed so that winning a match always confers on the players some advantage in the tournament, or at least never a disadvantage. Why not, for example, simply let the most successful teams choose first who they will face in the next round? One questionable feature of this week’s events is that the badly formulated rules for the format of the draw were instituted by the BWF. So the BWF, acting as legislator, judge and jury on the conduct of the players, itself had a vested interest in shifting the blame for the fiasco of non-competitive games onto the players themselves.
Still, it is reasonable to ask whether it would have been right for a properly impartial judging body to disqualify the players in this case. Savulescu’s post suggests, as far as I can see, four arguments against:
A) The players were using a strategy to win the tournament, and logically, a strategy cannot be abusive or detrimental to the sport.
B) The rules are not clear.
C) The rules are absurd.
D) The rules depend on a distinction between intending and foreseeing which is philosophically unsustainable.
So let’s assess these four arguments.
In September 2011 ,the most advanced computer game to use a consumer brain computer interface (BCI) will go on sale. Its name is Focus Pocus (see video trailer here, its awesome) and it is aimed at children with ADHD so that they might use gamification to train their brains to improve focus and impulse control.
The game is based on neurofeedback enabled by the use of the Neurosky dry-electrode EEG (Electro-EncephaloGram) headset, which anyone can purchase for under $100 (or 100 Euros if in Europe) Earlier this week, BBC2 did a special on the headset. The basic Idea is that the single electrode on the Neurosky headset (placed on the forehead) is able to pick up a few simple and characteristic brainwaves (created by activity in populations of neurons), some that have been shown to be enriched when the subject is awake and attentive (ex. Beta-waves), and some when the subject is relaxed (ex. alpha waves). Neurosky has developed algorithms to funnel these and other brain waves into measures of “focus” and “meditation.” Look here for more details on how it works.
Serious warning: this post contains nudity, images of graphic video-game violence, and detailed descriptions of rape and torture. The intended audience for this post is adults.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week, in a 7-of-9 majority, that the State of California may not prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors. Such a ban, the majority argued, restricts the free speech rights of the video-game manufacturers, and is therefore unconstitutional. Read the ruling here.
[note: the original version of this post contained some interactive code, which has been removed from the archives]
A new report released by the US Surgeon General last month reminds us that cigarettes are designed with addiction in mind. Tobacco companies infuse tobacco with ammonia so that the nicotine crosses the membranes in the lungs faster, reducing the delay between inhalation and pharmacological effect. They add flavourings like chocolate and vanilla to the blend, knowing that smokers will be more likely to smell something in their food that they associate with smoking, and to feel like lighting up. These tricks are a source of moral outrage for many of us; it seems as though the tobacco companies are exploiting weaknesses in our biology to make us buy things we would not otherwise have bought, and to do things we would not otherwise have done (or would not have done so much). And tobacco executives have often denied engaging in these kinds of tactics.
All this makes for an interesting contrast with the case of video games, in which addictiveness is universally held to be one of the hallmarks of an excellent game, in which games can win awards for being addictive, and in which a developer can unabashedly boast of putting the most addictive systems into their games.
Oxford Debates — Performance-Enhancing Drugs Should be Allowed in Sport — Moderator’s Opening Statement
by Roger Crisp
Taking drugs to improve one’s sporting performance seems, on the face of it, a paradigmatic example of a wrong action. It combines two activities usually considered shameful: the use of banned substances, and cheating.
But on closer inspection the issue is more complicated. The use of some drugs, such as nicotine or caffeine (both of which might enhance performance in some cases), carries little or no stigma, and the charge of cheating would be inappropriate were the drugs in question explicitly permitted.
authors like Susan Greenfield and Roger Scruton have raised worries about the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which
they fear might have a negative impact on human relationships, as people
increasingly spend their lives hidden behind an “avatar”. The movie Surrogates, recently released, precisely pictures a future humanity that lives
as it were by proxy: the story takes place in a world where people stay at home
and send remote-controlled “surrogates” – androids that are typically younger
and better-looking versions of themselves – out in the world to do things for
them. In the same vein, American futurologist Ray Kurzweil predicts that within a quarter of a century, virtual reality (VR) will rival the real
world: “If we want to go into virtual-reality mode”, he says, “nanobots will
shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will
become commonplace”. However, far from sharing the worries of people like
Greenfield and Scruton, Kurzweil believes this is a prospect we should look
In recent days there have been reports of a jump in the number of cases of H1N1 influenza (swine flu) in the UK. There have been 29 deaths associated with pandemic influenza in the UK, and there are 652 people in hospital in England with the flu. Faced with the prospect of primary health care services becoming overwhelmed, the government has set up a telephone hotline to allow those affected by the flu to access antiviral drugs (for example oseltamivir or Tamiflu) without needing to see a doctor. But there are also suggestions that not all patients with flu-like symptoms should be treated. Patients with mild or vague symptoms of the flu, without other medical conditions that put them at particular risk, may not be given medication.
This sets up a problem for patients who develop mild flu-like symptoms. Although there is only a small chance of them becoming seriously ill or dying from the flu it is possible that early treatment with anti-virals would reduce that risk. (Antivirals were only effective in trials if given in the first 48 hours of illness) Should they demand treatment from their doctor in the hope of avoiding a serious complication of influenza? Should they exaggerate their symptoms? If the doctor refuses, should the patient self-treat with medications that they have obtained privately (for example over the internet)? There is a form of the classic prisoner’s dilemma involved in such questions.
Once a week I thrash around haplessly on the tennis court. This week, I’m also a tennis spectator. While the global economy implodes, at least one event appears to be untouched – the 2009 Australian Tennis Open. Andrew Murray’s defeat yesterday means he can’t now net the eye-watering AUD$2 million first prize for the men’s single title. The women’s champion will earn….well, exactly the same, AUD $2million.
After a long running campaign by various groups, all the Grand Slams tennis tournaments now offer equal prize money to both sexes: Wimbledon fell into line in 2007. The argument was that just as no distinction should be made between women and men in the office, so there should be no distinction drawn on the court.