headtransplantThere’s been lots of coverage in the last day for the proposed first human head transplant, which an Italian surgeon thinks he could perform in 2017. Now, I know next to nothing about the medical aspects of it and if it’s even remotely possible, but I do wonder about the term ‘head transplant’.

For me, the term transplant refers to the part that’s being replaced from the perspective of the individual receiving the surgery. So if I was to have a heart transplant, I’d receive a new heart, for a kidney transplant I’d receive a new kidney etc

So, for a ‘head transplant’ to take place, I’d have to receive a new head. The question is, assuming we’re talking about a whole head (brain include), could I receive a new head and still be me? If my head was taken off and replaced with someone else’s, would the resulting creation be me, or the person who supplied the head? Likewise, if my head was then put onto their body, would what resulted be me or them?

It seems to me that while it doesn’t make for as dramatic a headline, what we really ought to be referring to here is body transplants, as the person that results from the surgery would surely be regarded as the individual who provided the head, not the one who provided the body. In the same way that I remain me if I’ve given a heart transplant, and am not regarded as the person who donated the heart, surely the same must apply for this sort of transplant, and we should be referring to it as a body transplant, not a head transplant?

(And yes, there are all sorts of further issues about your head being linked to someone else’s body, but for now I’ll leave those to the real philosophers and psychologists)


Thought experiment

Let’s suppose for the purposes of this argument that either social media as we know it existed in the 1970s, or the events I’m about to describe happened now.

In 1978, Larry Flynt (the publisher of Hustler magazine, amongst other things) was shot by a racist who was offended by something that Flynt had published. To be specific, it was pornographic images of a black man and a white woman together, which the racist shooter was offended by and wanted to kill Flynt because of it.

Flynt’s pictures were legal and depicted two consenting adults. Given that they offended a racist to such an extent that he tried to kill Flynt for exercising his right of free speech, would you share the pictures on social media to show solidarity with him?

(For the avoidance of doubt: the murders of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were an outrage and no one anywhere should be killed, assaulted or threatened for using their right to free speech)


On driverless cars

selfdrivingI was at an LGA event yesterday on traffic and transport, and one of the subjects discussed during the day was future transport infrastructure, specifically in the context of driverless cars. It helped to crystalliza a few thoughts I’ve had on the subject, and also confirmed that other people have some thoughts in a similar direction so I’m not completely off the beaten track. I want to elaborate on a few of those thoughts, partly just to capture them, but also to see if they can spark any sort of debate or thoughts from others on the subject.

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On open letters

As I see it, open letters take one of two forms. The first one is possibly useful:

Dear (insert name of recipient),

Hey, I’ve lost all your contact details, and as you’ve got a pretty common name, googling you isn’t helping me find them. I’m hoping that you look at this site and remember me, and if you do, would you send me your details so we can get back in touch?

Thanks, and hope to talk to you again soon,

Open Letter Writer

(Note, that I said possibly useful – done wrong, or for the wrong reasons, and it’ll stop being useful and start being more stalkerish)

Sadly, the more common form of them is this, which is not much use to anyone

Dear person in the news who’s the ostensible recipient of this letter but is unlikely to ever read it,

Why don’t you agree with me on everything? You really should, because then everything would be great. And by ‘you’ I actually mean everyone reading this, not the ostensible recipient of it, who’s unlikely to see this, given that they’re far too busy to trawl the media looking for people who write letters to them but can’t be bothered to track down their details and send the letter to them.

Anyway, you should definitely agree with me on everything. And possibly send me money too.


Open Letter Writer

So, now you know the secret of open letters, let’s hope you never feel the need to write one.

The house of awesomeness

The early Olympics were intended to have a much wider context than being just a sporting contest. There were contests in the arts alongside the sporting contests, and two of the first Games were held concurrently with international expositions (Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904). This year, there’s also been the Cultural Olympiad alongside the Games, but should there perhaps be something more.

I’m not talking about the old idea of arts contests, or the reviving the occasional suggestion of ‘mind games’ having contests during the Olympics, but instead making them a celebration of all the great things that have happened over the four years of an Olympiad. (Disclaimer: this was inspired by someone else’s tweet the other day)

On Monday, there were a lot of people comparing the landing of Curiosity on Mars to the Olympics as if the two events were in some sort of contest, but why can’t we instead accept that they both come into the category of human beings doing awesome things. And then, why not carry that forward?

How about, after the Olympics are over, the host city then establishes what we’ll call for now the House of Awesome (a duller and more worthy-sounding name may also be acceptable). This then becomes an information store or active museum cataloguing all the awesome things humanity does until the next Olympics ends and another city takes on the role. This place would be responsible for seeking out the amazing things that humans do over the next four years and making more people aware from them, from scientific achievements and discoveries through to examples of people doing amazing things in their everyday lives. There’d be public displays within the house of things that have been done, and an online presence to spread the word and gather in information. Then at the end of its time, it would remain there, adding in things that had happened but didn’t come to light until later but also serving as a reminder that during a particular four year period, human beings did a huge amount of awesome things. Over time, as the Olympics move around the world, so would the new Houses of Awesome (or the Museum of Human Achievement, if you prefer something worthy-sounding) appear, each one there to tell future generations about what great things their ancestors did.

So, anyone got a building in London and some funding to get this going?

Two views, one day

After waking, he checked his portable communication device, which instantly gave him the latest score in the Ashes Test from Sydney, confirming that England were on course to win the match, and with it, the series.

He went downstairs and picked up his portable reading device, selecting a book from the list of hundreds it contained within it. Wanting music to accompany his reading, he used his personal communication device to access a service that allowed him to select from millions on songs. Each one he selected was then transferred down telephone wires to his home and then beamed wirelessly to the communication device, which transmitted the signal along narrow wires to tiny speakers that he inserted directly into his ear.

Or in modern terminology, not that of a fifties sci-fi novel: this morning, I got up, checked the cricket score on the ECB app on my phone, then went downstairs to read on my Kindle for a while while using my phone to listen to Spotify.

Welcome to the future, where the most outlandish thing is still England winning the Ashes Down Under.

Back to the Moon

Here’s a question that’s been dwelling on my mind for a while: if it was necessary for human beings to return to the Moon as soon as possible, how long would it take?

We know that there are various promises from different national space programmes to go (or return) to the moon in the next decade or so. From memory, NASA have it as part of their planned programme of activity to get to Mars, and both China and India have said it’s their aim to get astronauts there. (Russia and ESA have instead decided to concentrate on doing useful things in space and making money from them)

However, let’s say that we needed to get someone up there as quickly as possible. For the sake of the argument, let’s say some aliens come to visit and tell us that the secrets of cold fusion, faster than light space travel, matter transportation and unlimited rice pudding are all in a box that they’ve planted in a relatively easily accessible part of the Moon, just waiting for someone to come along and open it up – which, they state, has to be done in person by a human being.

So, we know we have a working plan to get men to the moon – build a Saturn V, stick an Apollo capsule with a human payload on top and then cross your fingers that it works – but how long would it take to build those from scratch? Are there current manufacturing plants – anywhere in the world – capable of doing that work, or would new ones need to be built?

Or would there be a quicker path through either cobbling something together from existing technologies? Could a Soyuz or Ariane be expanded to be able to push a payload far enough?

I’ve tried looking for information on this but – not surprisingly – little attention has been paid to the question of ‘how quickly could we get back to the moon if our new alien overlords required it?’ by serious people, so I’m throwing it open to the wisdom of the internets to see if anyone out there might have an inkling.

And, of course, there’s a great story to be told when the first human to walk on the moon in over 40 years gets to that box, solemnly opens it and finds a note saying ‘Wow! Never thought you’d fall for that one!’