Saturday, November 01, 2003

Writer's Blogck?

5 weeks since last post. Guess I really don't have much to say. Another version in the can, defect counts very low, spending a week in Manzillo, Mexico in a couple of weeks -- life is good I guess.

I read the 4th of my boss's books, "Elegant Universe", by Brian Greene. Superstring theory. So, to combine the standard model of elementary particles, quantum, and general relativity, you need 11 dimensions? I guess you can make it work. 4 dimensions for spacetime, 7 for the rest. Plus, your smallest components are strings that can't get smaller than the Planck length. So, not having to deal with anything smaller than the Planck length gets rid of the infinities you normally get in renormalizing the quantum wave functions -- duh. Seems like you should be able to get the very hairy math to work, but, is that really how it works? I guess if you are a positivist like Hawking, you don't care -- if the math works, use it. But, maybe the three strong forces (em, strong nuclear, weak) are fundamentally different from gravity -- they weren't meant to be unified.

Read some sci-fi from the library -- standard escapist fare: "Crescent City Rhapsody", by Kathleen Ann Goonan, "Crossfire" by Nancy Kress. Both OK, the Kress a little disappointing, she's normally better than that. My to-read sci-fi stack is great right now: short story collections by Simmons and Jablokov, a Kim Stanley Robinson, Charles Stross's debut hardback novel "Singularity Sky" (I have really been looking forward to that, his short stories in Year's Best have been fantastic), a new John Barnes, and "Quicksilver" by Neal Stephenson. Life is good.

I would suspect part of the reason I have been blogging less is that I have been drinking a lot more. I seem to have gone from weekend drinking to 5 days a week drinking. With an alcoholic father and brother, that's not good. The death of my wife's brother (51 yrs old, motorcycle accident, no helmet, what an incredibly stupid fucking waste) did not help. I'm not really that worried. I'll try to have two good sober weeks before Mexico.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Finally, Some Non-Fiction

Well, my boss lent me 4 non-fiction books after I lent him the Wolfram, and I've felt compelled to read them so I can get them back into his book collection.

The 1st was a pretty astonomy picture book -- but no pictures I hadn't seen already.

I read the 2nd, "The Universe in a Nutshell", by Stephen Hawking in a couple of hours. Pretty pictures, more stuff on brane cosmological theories. The Theory of Everything (TOE) will have to involve multiple universes cause ours just doesn't balance by itself. Two interesting non-physics ideas:

  1. People like Star Trek because the people are so much like us -- not very likely for 400 years in the future.
  2. When we can grow infinks in artifical wombs, we can give them great big heads with great big brains. All the sci-fi I have read, I don't remember this one. I guess Hawking definitely values mind over body more than most, who I think would find this somewhat gross.
3nd book I really enjoyed: "Genome" by Matt Ridley, 1999. The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters (one per chromosome). He picks a gene or two off of each chromosome and uses it to explore many aspects of current genetic and evolutionary theory. Dozens of FFTKAT. Examples:
  • Continous evolutionary war in the genome itself. Junk DNA full of deprecated sequences, sequences inserted by viruses, sequences designed to fight specific diseases.
  • Only a few percent of the genome actually codes proteins. Large percent of junk DNA.
  • Warfare between X and Y chromosome. 3 times as many X's as Y's, they're winning: Y chromosome has only 1 gene.
  • Genome can change rapidly. All infinks loose their ability to digest lactose when weaned, i.e., lactose intolerance is the default condition in adults. Herding milk-producing domestic animals in the last 10,000 years has provided 70% of some human populations with the ability to digest lactose as adults.
  • Nature vs nurture: heredity is 50%, peer groups 50%, parents 0% ?!?!?
  • AB blood type provides immunity against cholera.
  • Imprinted genes in which the mother or father dominates: maternal genes grow the cortex, paternal genes grow the limbic region. The placenta comes mostly from paternal genes -- it helps the baby successfully invade the mother's body, suppresses her immune system, moderates her hormone levels.
  • Prions seem to be non-digital -- basically different from the rest of life.
and many, may others. I was only sorry when I read this that it is 4 years old. A 2e published more recently would probably have lots of things corrected and lots of new things right. My wife the pharmacist was actively disagreeing with lots of these, she's supposed to read and give me the overall FOS (full of shit) rating. Still, a really fun book to read.

Also read the 2nd Dan Simmons hard-boiled detective novel "Hard Freeze". I liked it a lot better than the 1st ("Hardcase"). The 1st had this annoying return to a minor subplot after the main plot had concluded -- kind of like the trite "no the monster isn't dead" at the end of a scary movie.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Book Reviews

I was excited to hear that Dan Simmons had written a new sci-fi -- except for short stories, his 1st since the 4 Hyperion books. Simmons writes really well. After winning all the SF prizes for Hyperion, he moved on to write horror, mystery, hard-boiled detective, spy stories, and straight fiction. My favorite book of his after Hyperion is probably Phases of Gravity, about a former astronaut who walked on the moon trying to cope with the fact that nothing in his existence would ever measure up to moonwalking. Gravity is used throughout as a metaphor for existential angst, it worked for me.

So, I read Ilium weekend before last. A great read, but a little disappointing. It looks like it is going to be "our literary and mythical figures really exist in alternative universes" -- which has been done before and doesn't do much for me. Still, hard to not enjoy Odysseus in the 24th century. You can't go wrong with Ulysses, the 1st great humanist, who trusted his wits and defied the gods.

It seems to me that reusing literary figures is a kind of a cheap ploy, and I usually interpret it as a lack of imagination. I read lots of Heinlein in my teen years, then gave up on him as he descended into DOM (dirty old man) syndrome. After the one with the old guy coinhabiting the body of a young woman, I said enough. Then his "The Number of the Beast" made the best-seller list and I thought, I should give it a try. Ach, it was painful -- and it did the "let's borrow other fictional characters" thing.

Herbert also seemed headed into DOMdom -- like the last two Dune novels with the tantric Bene Geserit. Seems like, some of these authors hit 60, maybe sexual powers fading, they start obsessing on sex -- and you can almost see the lears.

Last weekend I read Greg Bear's new one Darwin's Children, sequel to Darwin's Radio. Ten years ago, Bear really had edge -- good physics and good mind science. Forge of God and Anvil of Stars were great, as were Eon and Eternity, and the overall idea of City of Angels, that we figure out how minds work and fix them when there are problems, really appealled to me. Lately, tho, I think Bear has lost the edge -- I think Greg Egan may have stole it from him. For the amount of research Bear seems to have done into evolution, genetics and virology, the end result -- that entirely new and completely different features develop in homo sapiens novus -- seems highly unlikely and non-Darwinian to me. If he wasn't working so hard at the science, it might be easier to take. I have enjoyed many tales of mutated, more advanced humans (X-man, Slan by A.E. Van Vogt) -- that just kind of said, it happened.

Another really weird thing in the novel is that Bear has one of the main characters get a mental visit from God -- according to his afterword, based on many descriptions by people to whom this has happened?!?!? His father-in-law, Poul Anderson, died last year, maybe he found religion then? Anderson was one of my favorite SF authors throughout his career. Always a good read, hard SF and norse mythology based stuff, no DOM syndrome in his declining years. I periodically go though my SF and "evolve" it -- remove stuff that hasn't aged well and take it to the used book store. I could never bring myself to remove any Anderson. Anyway, I don't know, when my mother died, if anything it made me even more hostile to religion. The priest is up there selling his snake oil, "your mother's not dead" -- bullshit, she was dead, we all had to deal with it, and here the asshole is, pushing his product, eternal life.

I also recently reread "Vacuum Flowers", blogged earlier, Michael Swanwich, 1987. One thing I noticed that I had forgotten about, when the commando team is going down to earth, they have a librarian who can load them up with any specialty skills they need. Shades of "The Matrix", but 15 years earlier.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Lean and Mean

Modern business runs totally on the "lean and mean" model, JIT manufacturing as an example. This reduces inventories and maximizes profits -- a good thing. But, when it comes to infrastructrure, it may not be the right thing to do. The power outage in the north-east is a good example. The system is running right at capacity, no redundancy, a couple of stations go down and the whole thing dominoes. Following which, gas prices go up 20%, because a half dozen refineries in the blacked-out areas missed a day of production. The wild fluctuation we see in gas prices says the same thing to me, too lean and mean -- no resiliency against minor perturbations.

Vernor Vinge wrote two great sci-fi novels recently, "A Fire on the Deep" and "A Deepness in the Sky". I preferred the second one. One compelling idea he presented was that advanced planetary civilizations never make it more than around 10,000 years. They reach a point of precarious complexity such that a single event causes all the systems to come crashing down, with an ensuing mass die-off. When you see the brittleness of the majority of the computing systems that increasingly run our world, it definitely makes you think.

So, what to do? Certainly government regulation of infrastructure systems is one way to go, but government systems are surely about as far opposite of "lean and mean" as you can go. ("Fat and dumb" maybe?). Maybe a more Darwinian approach would be to slap massive fines (prefiled class action suits) on infrastructure companies in the event of outages or major or persistent SLA violations.

Monday, August 18, 2003

More Random Foo

Interesting article in this months Scientific American on the cerebellum. Its surface area is just over that of one of the cerebral hemispheres. The cerebrum has 10^11 neurons (interesting large number coincidence, also the number of stars in a large spiral galaxy like ours and the number of galaxies in the universe), each with an average of 10,000 (10^4) connections to axions. So, that makes 10^15 total synapses in the brain. Say you can model synapse state in 10 bytes, that gives 10^16 bytes for the neural state of the brain at any instant. That is, what, 10,000 terabytes? Pretty serious storage for a snapshot.

Anyway, returning to the cerebellum, the main point was that it seems to play a role in integrating sensory input as well as in balance and motor skills ("riding a bike"). What I thought was interesting, a lot of the cells in the cerebellum (they had a name) have 100,000 or more axion connections. So, a basically different wiring model. Made me think, this was "brain v1.0", and the cerebrum is "brain v2.0". Also interesting, you can lose your cerebellum and still mostly function, except for balance problems. Seems like that would have been a way to switch models, to have two brains and gradually switch from the older to the newer. Then, find something minor to do with the old model -- like when you take your former main server and make at Linux based DNS server or some such thing.

Returning to wailing on indigenous peoples (prior post), it's like, yes, let's preserve this stuff, but don't make people live by it. We don't need "museum Fremen". We don't need "4:00, must be time for the rain dance." Dancing is always good for the "soul", but as technology, it doesn't work.

So, I'm like 75% German (the largest U.S. ethnic group). So, should I go out in the back yard and do a blood sacrifice to Odin? I loved Norse mythology as a kid, but I also loved Greek, Welsh, and pretty much every other mythology I have ever read. Great stories, but don't ascribe any more meaning to them than that.

Monday, August 11, 2003

Random Reviews

Three CDs I have gotten recently, based on recommendations from my 18 yr old nephew in Maine: The Coral, The Libertines, and Interpol. Took a few listens, but I like them all. The Coral the most, I think -- kind of Zappa-esque in places. All three have a retro, 80's punk feel.

I also got the new Audioslave CD. I broke the rules and only listened to 4 tracks or so before I gave up. Not much new there at all, way to much fuzz. I sold it to one of my youngest daughter's male friends for $1.

At the library a couple of weeks ago, I picked up two recent Multiverse/Elric based novels by Michael Moorcock, "The Dreamthief's Daughter" and "The Skrayling Tree". We really liked the Elric/Corum/Multiverse stuff in college. Moorcock's writing then was very much at a comic book level, pretty sketchy. Lately, I have seen reviews of him as getting general literary notice. I guess his writing is better, but these novels throw so much stuff together, it's hard to get much out of them. When pretty much anything goes, I don't know, it's just kind of hard to respect or see any principles.

I dutifully (since in college I had ~1000 Marvel comics) saw the latest Marvel comic movie, "Daredevil". I guess it was pretty well done, but it never quite sucked you in. I thought the two X-Men movies were very good, and Spiderman was also good. Still have to see "The Hulk".

Went to the Kentucky with meine frau last night and saw "The Whale Rider". Nice story, well done, and I love Maori tattoos. The indigenous people thing is a hard one for me tho. I mean, the point of this was that they had to break their sacred traditions to let a girl become a chief -- #1 strike against indigenous cultures, their women's rights views pretty much universally suck. OK, you get past that, they are practicing stick fighting, tongue-sticking-out to frighten your enemies, and the other warrior stuff. So, what next, get in the canoes and raid Australia? I read something recently (Sci Am?) where pretty much every study they do shows that the "noble savage" stuff if a total myth. In most of these cultures, tribal warfare is a major cultural activity, with murder rates rivaling Detroit or DC. On the "living in harmony with nature" thing, it's only because they don't have the tech to dominate. I think it's generally recognized that the big mammals of North America were hunted into extinction when the 1st humans came here. I guess that these cultures have beauty that needs to be preserved, but their primitive world views are just that, primitive. Maybe they, like a lot of modern people seem to want to be, are more satisfied and happy being ignorant of 99.9% of current human knowledge. But, who has the right to sentence them to this ignorance, and the 40 year life spans that go with it? In the name of what?

I should have had my bumper stickers printed up: "Embrace Complexity".

Thursday, August 07, 2003

The Universe is Information

Read an interesting article in the latest Scientific American last night, on the universe as a hologram. Main theme, it's all about information. (Correction to an earlier blog: the Planck length is 10^-33 cm). I read Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" a few weeks after it came out, pretty much the same thing. The base substance of universe is information, and all physical processes are computations. The universe is a Turing machine running itself -- and for lots of things, all you can do is wait and see how it comes out.

It seems odd, I started out as a physicist, then became a Servant of the Great Machines, and now they seem to be coming together. One gut-level feel I have from working in software: there is no limit to the amount of software that can be written. It's like derivative investments, but much worse. I think Bruce Sterling said, one particularly dysfunctional future we may have to look forward to is one where we all work at help desks trying to help each other figure out how to use everyone's buggy software packages.

On vacation a few weeks ago, we were watching glass blowing at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning NY. I'm watching them make a glass bowl with one furnace running at 2300 degrees, one at 2100, and an annealling furnace at 1200, and I'm basically stuck thinking, "Damn, that's sure a lot of energy for not a lot of information".

A comment on the last blog re AE and using the model of "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion". It doesn't seem to address basic "drives". Most of these are tied to the four F's (fight, flight, feed, procreate). What do you replace these with in AE?

Sunday, August 03, 2003

More AI Foo

One of the best new science fiction authors is Greg Egan. His physics and computer science are both great, and his website is way cool. I'm definitely jealous. My favorite is "Diaspora". It opens with a very believable account of the birth and development of a new artificial intelligence in a civilization of artificial intelligences.

Another brand new author who really "gets it" with directions on computing and AI is Charles Stross. His stories have been by far the best in the last three Dozois "Year's Best Science Fiction" -- the best place I have found to keep an eye out for new sf talent. Stross's 1st paper novel is due out soon.

One theme that seems to be taking firm hold in AI and cognitive science is that AI will have to be built on AE -- Artificial Emotion. I think that a lot of geeks have Star Trek's Mr. Spock as a role model. But, in Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat", which is a great look into a number of the subagents and routines that compose the mind, there is one patient whose damage caused him to lose his emotions -- i.e., he became Mr. Spock. Problem was, he couldn't make any decisions. He could debate himself for hours on what to have for breakfast. The emotions are the raw drive that puts the mind in motion.

Another book I have read recently on this is "The Private Life of the Brain" by Susan Greenfield. Don't remember too many fun facts from this one, except the contention that mind is built on top of emotion.

I think anyone wanting to start coding in the area will want to use the model defined in "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion" by Ortony, Clore and Collins. Their model seems very workable. Some aspects are surprising -- for example, they define all emotions as polar -- if it can't have an opposite (love/hate), it ain't an emotion. So "surprise" isn't an emotion. What they have tho seems very workable. I have seen only one other model of emotions, by some Australian company, and it seemed a lot more arbitrary.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Hard AI

Hard AI (Artificial Intelligence) posits that mind can be instantiated in hardware other than the human brain. If you can do hard AI, then presumably truly intelligent machines can be created or evolved.

The other side of the Cybernetic Singularity is humans being able to migrate their intelligence to silicon -- kind of like "The Matrix", but then throw the body away. In some science fiction, the supposition had been that you have to do a deep, destructive scan of the brain to make such a transfer -- which may not be too far off of the mark. To a computer geek like myself, the hardware/software <=> brain/mind analogy has been intuitively compelling for many years, but as I have studied brain and mind science more, the implementation of the human mind, particularly memory, is seriously intertwined with the neurological hardware -- not the nice layers that we like to do in software.

One of the 1st sci fi novels that was way ahead of the curve on this stuff was "Vacuum Flowers" by Michael Swanwick (1987, now out of print). About when this came out, some of my colleagues and I were talking about the analogies between computer and human design and maintenance:

  • Hardware maintenance engineer <=> doctor
  • Hardware designer <=> genetic engineer (future)
  • Software maintainer <=> psychiatrist
  • Software developer <=> prophet??? self-help guru???
As part of the discussion, we wanted a term for programs that humans could load into their brains and run and couldn't come up with a word we liked -- then out comes "Vacuum Flowers" with "wetware", which is perfect. Other good concepts in the book:
  • Loadable personalities, available at your local book/music/video store. No doubt in my mind, if the average teen could "be" Brittany or whoever the latest is instead of just dressing like them and idolizing them, they would.
  • Designed personalities. One of the main characters has a personality built from four archetypes: trickster, warrior, leader, fool (I think).
  • The earth is a hive mind. The rest of the solar system is very careful to avoid "being assimilated".
All in all, a fantastic read for 1987. I am going to do a reread soon. Swanwick has been very prolific since then, but nothing else quite in this memespace. Some of his stuff tho has a misogynistic streak I've never understood.

Back to hard AI, I think that the machines will far be able to far surpass humans. Human/machine interfaces or outboard processors for minds will probably be de rigeur for competitive survival. There was an interesting rebuttal of the Cybernetic Singularity last year by Jaron Lanier, I think at The Edge. His point was, he wasn't too worried about it as current software was way too buggy to ever get as sophisticated as the mind. Two points against that argument:

  1. The human mind is buggy. If it weren't, we wouldn't need mental hospitals. And even sane minds are subject to many cognitive illusions (see "Inevitable Illusions", Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, 1994). You can also find many references to how overrated human intuition is. Physicians who don't follow strict protocols but rather trust their instincts and intuitions are wrong more often than they are right.
  2. Software is still very young. For instance, basic protocols for component communication have never been stable long enough for any kind of organic growth. The DCOM-CORBA rivaly is now Web Services; early ontology exchange models are now being replaced by DAML-OIL. Interestingly, Lanier has recently invented "Phenotropic Computing" -- current hard defined interfaces are replaced by fuzzy pattern recognition between software components. Very interesting, much more brain-like, much less brittle and thus with much more potential to evolve.
Enough for now. Next up, Greg Egan, AE (Artificial Emotion).

Friday, July 04, 2003

Where was I?

Well, June wasn't quite as bad as May. Only 240 hours of work as opposed to 270. I pretty much worked all last weekend. We had 8 people in at 1am Sunday morning. I left at 2:15, a couple worked until 6 am. Still, had our 1st install of our new product, of which I was one of the principal designers, on Monday, at an 800 pound gorilla financial services corp, and it seems to be going OK. I have worked a full day Saturday 90% of the weekends for the last two years -- I'm trying to quit that. I hate working Sunday too. When you don't take at least one day off on the weekend, you spend the next week with no sense of what day it is. They all kind of seem like Friday. Luckily, things look good enough that everyone can enjoy this 3 day weekend.

I got the new Radiohead CD, "Hail to the Thief". They continue their journey from being a standard grunge band to painting on a blank canvas and doing whatever they feel like. "OK Computer" is still my favorite (duh). Driving to New York, we listened to "Pablo Honey" and "The Bends", their 1st two. The jump from there to "OK Computer" is unbelievable.

Other CDs I got for my birthday from my oldest daughter:

  • Day One, "Ordinary Man". I think I like this one the best. Tasty urban lyrics, popish background.
  • The Incredible Doctor Cyclops, "Invasion". Tres bizarre. Speed ska spy movie themes? Totally campy lead singer? Erica's friend Kelly, who graduated from Dunbar the year before her, is the trumpet player.
  • Chemical Brothers, "Surrender". The 1st Chemical Brothers CD I have, very tasty, great aural textures.
  • Rjd2, "Deadringer". This one isn't clicking much, I need to listen to it a few more times.
My youngest daughter gave me a copy of Outloud Dreamer, "Drink the Sky". Nice tunes, good chick lead singer.

I finished the 3rd George R. R. Martin, "A Storm of Swords" and passed on to my son. I was wondering when he would find time to read it and then I remembered: he reads 300-400 pages an hour, with good retention. So, he can consume this 1100 page time in 4 hours or so. These books are definitely well done -- you can never guess who he's going to kill off next.

Saturday, June 21, 2003

A Trip to the Met

I drove my oldest daughter back to New York City last Saturday. She has moved from Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the East Village in Manhattan and has more room than before and wanted to take some stuff back. We had a high-speed blowout just west of Allentown, PA, with her driving. She did great, got us off the road, then I got to change the tire with semis whizzing by 10 inches away.

Sunday, we had a nice outdoor brunch and then went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had not been there (nor ridden the NYC subways) for 30 years. I had forgotten what a fantastic museum that is.

It is really great going to museums with Erica, who is an artist. She had wanted to see an exhibit of photography by Charles Sheeler. Lots of urban and industrial shots, but focusing on small parts rather than the whole. I learned from this, that doing that, focusing on a small part rather than what we would normally perceive as the whole image, is a flavor of found art. There was also a series of nudes of his 50ish, somewhat overweight wife -- but 6" by 10" sections or very odd angles. Some of them looked like dunes on Mars -- they could have been anything.

We next looked at the statuary court, with the Rodin Burghers bronze. Unbelievable, bronze with eyes that seem to be looking back at you.

Next stop, Oceania and Asmat (New Guinea) ancestor poles. These things were really scary. They are beautifully complex, with human figures one atop the other. From the top person, this thing projects -- the soul, phallus, you couldn't tell what -- a web with a person at the apex. The cards said, the Asmat did not believe in natural death, except in the very young or old. All other death was caused by rival tribes headhunting or sorcerers. When you got down a few tribe members, you would have a big ceremony and carve one of these. If you were down three tribe members, then you left three alcoves or spaces in the carving for the shrunken heads of the enemy tribes you would take to even the score. These things really were haunting -- these people were not running the same software that I am.

We then hit the Impressionists -- unbelievable, a room of Cezanne's, 2 rooms of Renoirs, etc. Then we headed for the modern section. We weren't there long before I knew it was time to go. My brain was starting to hurt. Two hours is about all I can do -- good art really is capable of delivering a psychic shock.

I was somewhat relieved that the next day my mind seemed to be working fine. When I first saw the movie "Brazil", my mind didn't work right for the next couple of days. After I got back from 5 days in France in late March, the French language thread I was running also made my mind feel distinctly different. It really seems like there should be techniques to tweak our software, far more effectively than drugs, meditation, or the other techniques we have. What would those be?

Monday, June 09, 2003

Matrix Reloaded

Saw "Matrix Reloaded" yesterday on my birthday. I had heard some bad reviews from my kids, I was pleasantly suprised. Some of the scenes seem to drag out, but I really enjoyed the software land aspects of it -- that's where I live a lot of the time. So, the Matrix is on version 6.n, and it is time for v7.0, and they have to do a fairly complete reboot for each version. I liked the software only entities -- the Oracle, the Merovingian and his pals -- self-modifying or code-creating utilities from v2 or 3 of the matrix who had escaped deletion.

I believe in strong AI, which posits that mind can be instantiated in hardware other than the human brain (More on this in the future.) Matrix Reloaded takes that for granted, and is a major step past Matrix 1, which was more that humans could plug into VR (Virtual Reality).

I had intended to have more reviews of AI and cognitive science books here as I read them -- but -- haven't read that many lately. Overwork is the main factor, plus my son got me reading the George R.R. Martin "A Game of Thrones" and "A Clash of Kings". I don't read much fantasy anymore, but these are good escapist fare, and are written for adults. But -- 9 narrative threads, 1800 pages, no way he can wrap this in a third (fourth? fifth? ...) book.

Rule of thumb for the standard modern novel: minimum 100 pages per narrative thread. A couple of William Gibson's mid-career books violate this (too short by 100 pages are so) -- I formulated this when I noticed that the novels seemed "sketchy".

Saturday, June 07, 2003

My Three Best Blasphemies

Whew, code is frozen or at least slushy. I worked 270 hours in May. I'm getting too old for this shit. Still, lots of good code in the can is always satifying.

I feel like I've lost my "train of blog", so, now for something completely different.

I was raised religious (Catholic altar boy, but no molestations that I remember) and was really into it. At about 14, I decided it didn't work and quit going to church, etc. In my college years, I read up a lot on other religions, mysticism, etc. I'm now a militant atheist. I didn't used to be so militant, but it seems like the christians are trying so hard to ram their crap down everyone else's throat that we've got to fight back. "Creation Science" (an oxymoron) in the schools, legislated morality, annoying blue laws (no buying beer on Sunday) here in Lexington. You're not supposed to discuss religion and politics, screw it. The only thing bad about arguing with christians is that they don't have any good arguments.

My kids are all (but one) pretty much atheist. They have remarked about how in discussions with theistic friends, how sad it is when that person's religious beliefs kick in and part of their minds shut down. My youngest told me a couple of months ago, trying to believe in god for her would be like trying to believe in Santa Claus -- very silly.

Anyway, on to my three best blasphemies. The first two are from around 10 years ago, the latest just a couple of months ago.

  1. Around Easter, someone in the office was espousing the power of prayer, miracles happen, blah, blah, blah. My response was "Well, I have been fairly lucky, no major tragedies, maybe if something serious were to happen to one of my kids, I'd be down on my knees trying to suck god's dick like you are." Hopefully at this point, I don't think I would be.
  2. A few weeks after that, someone else was talking about the power of god, jehovah in particular. I told him "I have it on reliable authority that jehovah is being butt-fucked by the easter bunny anytime the bunny feels like it." There was some serious scattering for cover to avoid the lightning after that one.
  3. This past Easter (seems like a good time for blasphemy ;->) I don't remember what triggered it or who I delivered this to, but I came up with: "They discovered the Lost Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It's a tell-all, and one of the things she reveals is that Jesus only had a 4 inch dick."
I knock on wood against the jinx, I loved the Greek tragedies where one of the major character flaws was hubris before the gods, but give me Ulysses every time. Ten years of sailing is worth telling the gods off.

I wonder about the future of religion. Will the race outgrow the need? In the US, the megachurches are more like country or social clubs than religions. Religion as a behavior control mechanism is pretty dead in the US (but thriving in Islamic countries!). Yah, it's harder to live without someone telling you there are easy answers and that you don't have to die. But, to use religion as an opiate for the masses goes way beyond my level of cynicism. Engineering religions like the Bene Gesserit in Dune seems evil. The right thing to do is, make everyone smarter and fix the bad stuff in their heads.

Monday, May 19, 2003

Two More Interesting Books on Consciousness

I mentioned these last time.

"The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size" by Tor Norretranders, who's a Danish science writer. Lots of good stuff in this. He talks about the conscious mind ("I") vs the unconscious mind ("me"). One great figure: what is the baud rate of the human consciousness? The human sensorium takes in 11 megabits a second: 10 Mb visual, .5Mb audio, the rest taste, smell, touch and proprioception. So what is the baud rate of human consciousness? 20 baud per second! It's why movies work at 24 frames a second. The mind cannot discern any time intervals less than 50 milliseconds (1/20th of a second). It pissed me off, the last world cup they would show slo-mo of offsides calls missed by linesmen by 2-3 inches. In 50 milliseconds, a fast human running at full speed can go about 18 inches. So, anything better than that is just luck. Humans don't have slo-mo eyes or consciousness.

I read this a few years ago, I was going to refer to it for some more FFTKAT (fun facts to know and tell), but it seems to not be on my bookshelves. Another meme that wanted to be spread, I guess.

"The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore. I read a couple of years ago. It is a fairly good books on memetics. She had a summary article on it in Scientific American shortly after that. They had some critical responses. One of her contentions is that humans are the only species to practice imitation, which lead to memetics and the runaway evolution of our big brains. Other biologists questioned that, pointing out other species that practice imitation, including some birds, I think.

Blackmore talks about memeplexes -- groups of memes that come as a package. For example, when you're infected with a religious meme, you get belief in a god, belief in life after death, belief in the power of prayer, etc. One of the strongest memeplexes is the selfplex. It is the "take credit for it all" conscious part of our mind that really doesn't do that much, but is constantly reinforcing its own importance.

Blackmore at the end advocates learning to ignore the incessant demands of the selfplex. Kind of a Buddhist attitude.

I really, really don't believe that everything is an illusion. I have been observing reality closely for many, many years, and it never once has slipped. (No deja vu cats like in The Matrix). So, I think Buddhism/Hinduism is wrong, everything is not illusion -- but I think I do buy into the idea that the self is.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I mentioned Julian Jaynes last post. He was a Yale psychology professor who published this book in 1986. I bought a copy 8-9 years ago, got around to reading it 3-4 years ago. It is an incredibly fun book.

The basic premise is that, prior to around 1300 BC, the human mind worked radically differently than what it does now. The mind was bicameral (we had two minds). The left brain could execute simple programs (plant the crops, harvest, etc), reinforced by a view of a central tower or pyramid. When the left brain stressed out, the right brain woke up and chanted instructions in the Voice of God. The god-priest-king who spoke from central tower helped set the directions with his right brain pronunciations. So, god actually did talk to people, from their right hemispheres. But, as cities got larger (you couldn't see the central tower) and society got more complex, this model broke down, and consciousness as we know it evolved to take its place.

From references to this in Dennett and other cognitive scientists, I think that pretty much nobody working in the field buys into this. But, everyone seems a bit awed by the concept, and I think that psychoarcheology is recognized as a legitimate endeavor, largely invented by Jaynes. It is highly doubtful that our consciousness as is sprang into being all at once. There are clearly levels of intelligence. We have a dog. I am not a dog person, but our dog has really impressed me with the level of intelligence of dogs. He clearly forms and executes plans, i.e., displays intentional behavior. He knows when he has been bad, exhibits remorse, lots of other things. I am sure I am preaching to the choir of dog-lovers.

A more detailed review of TOOCITBOTBM. I would refer to the book, but I am currently without a copy. I believe I have bought three. This is clearly a meme that I have been compelled to spread.

The book starts with asking what consciousness is. First, lots of things it is not: problem-solving and many other activities considered "conscious" are examined and found to actually be mostly unconscious. One of the main things the conscious mind is good at is taking credit for things it does not do, reinforcing its importance (to be examined in more detail in a later post on "The User Illusion" and "The Meme Machine"). Jaynes says consiousness has two main components: short term memory (the focus of attention), and the narrative I (each of us is constantly telling ourself "the story of me").

He then has a fairly incomprehensible chapter on metaphrors and metaphrands (don't worry, skim or skip it), followed by an in depth examination of the concept of self in "The Iliad", down to the Greek nouns used. His contention is that no one in The Iliad ever really has an idea. Zeus says do it, they do it. Aphrodite says do it, they do it. I reread about 1/3 of The Iliad looking for this (the Lattimore translation, I still read a bit occasionally) and didn't feel like I particularly saw it -- except for one scene where Paris is getting his butt kicked by Meneleaus and is suddenly transported to his chambers inside the city by Aphrodite (i.e., his right brain woke up and, in the voice of Aphrodite, told him to run like hell.)

He then recounts how, when the bicameral mind started to breakdown, there were many religous writings asking "Why won't god talk to us anymore?" As they tried to find replacements for the voice of god, they tried lots of odd stuff. He talks about a Sumerian? book of omens, with 20,000 rules of behavior ("if a scorpion comes out from under your house, your mother-in-law will die.") -- pretty cool, they were trying to use rule-based expert systems (a brittle AI tool popular in the mid-80s).

The archtypal example of the new, conscious human mind is the hero of "The Odyssey", Odysseus or Ulysses, who has always been a favorite of mine. He is an archytypal trickster -- he is wonderful at deception and lying. And, as one of the features of the bicameral mind was YOU COULD NOT LIE, he was at a huge advantage.

Once the theory is presented, Jaynes then has a great time reinterpreting all of human history in its light. This is really great fun. Among the high points:

  • A history of oracularism (e.g., the Delphic Oracle). The oracles were normally recruited from shepherds or other isolated people, where you could occasionally find someone still running the old software. Originally, they spoke in the voice of god, then they required interpretation by priests, finally, around the 4th century AD, they quit working altogether.
  • A discussion of the casting of lots (rolling dice). There was no probability theory until the 17th century -- people thought god determined the outcome of dice throws.
  • A history of hypnotism. Invented by Mesmer in 1870(?), it is a totally plastic phenomenom. Originally you rolled around on the floor and twitched when hypnotized. That being too undignified, it was dropped after around 30 years. The deal with not being able to remember what happens while you are in a trance was only added 30 or so years ago. And, the more religious you are, the more easily you are hypnotized. Jaynes says that is well known that the best subjects for studies on hypnotism come from seminaries.
  • How did 100 Spaniards conquer the millions of Incas and Aztecs? Jayne posits that the Incas and Aztecs were still running the old software, so, when they asked the Spaniards if they were gods and the Spaniards said yes, they believed them.
So, I thought of this after my "almost religious" experience because, when 'Something Is" started rolling around in my head, it was clearly dominantly in the left internal aural field -- i.e., being generated by my right brain. Oops, Jaynes says the only time you run into the old software currently is in schizophrenics. Well, at least I'm sane (or as sane as the next guy) most of the time ;->

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Almost a Religious Exprerience

I have been working too much lately -- and yesterday, we just moved our code freeze date out three weeks -- no rest for the wicked. Anyway, I am getting wore out. I don't believe in stress. I am pretty good at keeping my interrupt stack at managable levels (3-7), and stopping and reminding myself that I enjoy what I am doing. But, I do get wore out after a while. I am definitely ready for my sushi and beer (Asahi) Friday night.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I had an experience that I would mostly attribute to being tired. I was having my 1st smoke of the day at ~6:30 am, and thinking about intelligent design. It just don't work. It's like the USSR and their 10 year plans -- you just can't plan things that well. Of course, an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent being could, but I can't come up with any model of such a being that even vaguely works. Instead, you start with one principle, survival of the fittest, apply it to a system with imperfect replication, and ecosystems or economies grow. I bought an evolutionary biology textbook to see what the definition of an ecological niche was, and it was pretty much as I expected: an n-dimensional volume in the n-dimensional space of environmental parameters. Plus, they are highly fractal. Nothing ever perfectly fills a niche, leaving a smaller niche, leaving a smaller niche ...

So I was thinking this and said to my myself, all it takes is that, "Something is" (belief #1).

Whoa, the two words "Something is" started rolling around in my left internal aural field, echoing back and forth like thunder rolling across the sky. "Holy shit, it's a religious experience!" I thought immediately. That realization was enough to stop it, but wow, what an odd feeling.

I didn't realize until I thought about it later that it was localized to my left side. More on that and Julian Jaynes in a future entry.

Anyway, it made me think. I have read a couple of places in the last year or so (I think in the issue of Wired with iSmell in it), that most religious experiences can be induced by simulating the proper regions of the brain with electromagnetic fields. So, you spend years meditating or practicing some other similar disciplne to attain satori or samadhi, and all you're doing is getting some regions of your brain that don't normally fire to fire. Is it worth the effort if you can just turn on the satori-o-matic instead? I guess if you're young, you say, yes, it's not real otherwise. But, when you're old, you say, who's got the time, give me the juice (or the sushi and beer).

One of the problems with the totally rational view of brain function is that it does somehow trivialize mental activity and accomplishments -- just an interesting or abnormal pattern of neurons firing. So maybe concepts like "soul", "self", etc although unreal, are actually tokens of meaning. One of the primary functions of the mind is to act as a meaning generator -- so that even thought this stuff doesn't exist, we pretend it does as a base of our meaning structures???

Hmm, this needs more thought ...

I got a pretty good idea of the limitations of my mental sofware when I was VP of software development for Renlar Systems from 1987-1995. This was a small (50 people, 15 in development, $5m annual sales) company selling a pharmacy vertical. In 1986, I was working for my own consulting company. A good friend of mine, the founder/president of Renlar, asked me to come in and run development there. I liked what I was doing, but I owed him favors, and he was and is a good friend, so I agreed to do it for 1 year -- and wound up doing it for 8.

It was highly interrupt driven. I found out during that time, I feel most comfortable working on 2-4 things at a time, using normal scheduling algorithms of filling down time on one thing with work on another. I could go up to about 7 things without thrashing. (The standard computer OS definition of thrashing is when you spend all your time deciding what to do, such that you never actually do anything). Above 7 levels of interrupt, I start thrashing. I decided to quit the job when the following happened: I was around 20 levels deep on the interrupt stack when our best sales guy came to the door of my office and started talking about something he had to have. I looked at him and could see his lips moving, but I couldn't hear a word he was saying. "Whoa -- red stack overflow." My mind was rejecting any new interrupts. At that point, the thought was definitely "I'm out of here -- this place has broke my brain." -- so I started looking for a different job and left shortly thereafter.

Monday, May 12, 2003

So, How Many Universes Are There?

About 6 weeks ago I read "Calculating God", by Robert Sawyer. OK read, good concepts, OK writing, but had that "let's wrap it in the last 50 pages deus ex machina" finish that is not uncommon in science fiction. The plot is, aliens show up on earth wanting to do paleontological research because they want to understand why God schedules mass die-outs when he does. They are total theists because their physicists have determined that this is the only universe, and the Anthropic Cosmological Principle then implies that the there must have been intelligent design. (Borrowed from the link: The anthropic cosmological principle asserts that the laws, constants and basic structure of the universe are not completely arbitrary. Instead they are contrained by the requirement that they must allow for the existence of intelligent observers, ourselves.).

I am struck by the converse of this statement. Given that there is no intelligent design, then the anthropic cosmological principle implies that there must be many universes. How many? Oh boy, let's do the math.

If we go with the interpretation of quantum that every quantum event branches a new universe, we could guestimate: 10^80 particles in the universe x 10^10 years (age of universe) x 10^7 seconds/year x 10^22 (? if I remember right) planck times/second = 10^119, call it 10^120 -- a nice round number.

In 1973, P.A.M Dirac gave a talk at MIT. He was I think in his 80's and semi-retired at a university in Florida. He was one of the fathers of quantum physics, popularly credited as having been the predictor of antimatter (the positron). He mostly talked about his theories of large numbers. I think it was that the scale factor of the universe (from the smallest to the largest thing) was 10^40, and the number of elementary particles in the universe was 10^80, so the two must be related in some way. He kind of blew the attending crowd away -- a highly skeptical reaction. What fun, we have the product of his two numbers!

I think multiple universes is highly likely. The big bang as a quantum fluctuation of nothingness or superspace is I think the conventional wisdom. The latest Sky & Telescope has an article on new cosmologies, talking about parallel universes on membranes (branes). These could correspond to the 6 extra tiny dimensions of string threory. And the dark energy, which has seemed like a total kludge to me, is gravity from adjacent branes -- gravity is the only force that crosses branes, which is why it's so weak compared to the other forces (electomagnetic, weak, stong).

So, if there are multiple universes, and there are lots of them, maybe they're not that hard to make -- re Greg Bear "Eon" and lots of others.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Possibility Space and The Chopstick of Doom

If my artistic skills weren't completely atrophied, I could do a picture or animation. But, they are, so, picture this:

Take a string 15" long, and thumbtack it to a table in front of your left hand. Pick up the free end with your right hand and hold the string at a 45 degree angle. Then take a chopstick (originally a pencil, but The Chopstick of Doom has a nice ring to it) in your left hand; place it next to the thumbtack; then slide it along the table towards the right. The moving chopstick represents your life passing; the distance of the string from the table represents your possibilty space -- the things you can do with your life. As your life passes, your possibility space decreases. When the chopstick meets the end of the string, the string is on table. This is you on your deathbed, when you have only one possibility: you're going to die.

The change of course really isn't smooth. There are times in your life when you collapse many possibilities into a single future: when you decide where to go to college or who to marry; when you pick your major or career; when you start or change jobs.

Do you ever get chances to increase your possibility space? Yes, I think so. Mid-life career changes, divorce, moving to a new city -- these can all do it.

A bad mental trap I think it is easy to fall into is to dwell on the possibilities that you did not choose ("the path not taken"). Doing this evokes the bittersweet emotion, which can be pleasant. But, I think it is basically your death wish talking to you. I think about the past very little. I learn lessons or form theories based on experience that I fit into my worldview, then I forget the details and move on. We all live life in the Now, whether we like it or not. We can affect the future, so that is what we should focus on ("the future, the future"). The past is dead and gone, forget it.

I have learned that memories fade if you don't reinforce them by remembering them. After replaying a memory, you can now additionally remember yourself remembering the memory, and remembering remembering ... ad infinitum. All this burns it into your neurons. Refuse to think about an unpleasant memory, and it will fade (neuron activation potentials increase when the neuron is not fired frequently?).

I have always enjoyed the bittersweet emotion. Fall is my favorite time of year, everything dying :-> I think it has to do with genes for alcoholism, which I think give a tendency to depression and represent a death wish. I think I have moved past that tho.

The antebellum South (re "Gone with the Wind") was the essence of bittersweet. It was stately and beautiful, but it was rotten at the core with slavery. I think that The Band's self titled album "The Band" really had the Southern bittersweet thing down. Then you find out, Robbie Robertson is from Toronto and got his info on the South from reading Faulkner when he was a teenager! Still, one of my top 50 albums.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

Astrophysics. I started college as a math major, decided on physics when I noticed in my junior year that I only needed two more physics courses for a physics degree. I wasn't really into it until my senior year, when I had to do a thesis and started working with the OSO-7 X-ray astronomy group at the MIT Center for Space Research. This was the 2nd satellite put up to look at X-ray sources (X-rays don't get through the atmosphere). The rest of the group was working on galactic objects -- primarily collapsed objects (neutron stars and the 1st black hole candidates) particularly in eclipsing binary systems. I was put on extragalactic stuff, and I really fell in love with it. Extragalactic X-rays are mostly from hot gas in the central regions of rich clusters of galaxies, and, to a much lesser extent, from AGN (active galactic nuclei). It's really cool, with every different wavelength (x-ray, gamma, infrared, radio) different types of objects show up galactically and extragalactically.

OSO-7 wasn't really a very good instrument for extragalactic x-ray work (not precise enough), and I wasn't a great scientist. The one paper I published was the incorrect identification of an extragalactic x-ray source (with a solitary radio galaxy, 3C317 instead of a rich cluster A2029). Oh well. It was great tho, zooming out amongst the galaxy clusters, just like the Silver Surfer, and coming up with theories for all kinds of stuff.

Studying the clusters, I concluded that the ideas popular at the time about the size of galaxy superclusters were incorrect. They were mostly put at 10-20 Mpc (Mpc = megaparsec = 1 million parsecs, 1 parsec = ~3 light years), I had them at more like 100-200 Mpc. So, I was seeing the great walls, voids, and filaments that are now known about 15-20 years before they made the big time. The joys of pattern recognition.

Based on the form of the superclusters, I had my own cosmology! I borrowed the concept of "retarded cores" from the Russians -- retarded cores are basically white holes, left over pieces of the big bang, at the center of galaxies. My picture was a universe where the big bang was a big split, followed by another, etc ... So the white hole that is the big bang divides and redivides like a growing life form. The missing mass is left in the retarded cores, not yet emerged into the universe.

Unfortunately:

  1. The math doesn't work for white holes in our universe, according to something I read in Penrose years ago. Serious problems with entropy.
  2. Hubble (the Hubble space telescope) has pretty much confirmed the normal theories of galaxies: that they accrete from smaller pieces, and that AGN grow from stuff collecting in the gravitational well. Hubble is really amazing. For years, theorists were positing galactic centers with accretion disks and jets escaping via the magnetic poles -- then Hubble takes a picture of it in the center of M-87! (M-87 is the supergiant cD galaxy at the center of the Virgo Cluster.)
The only thing that I remember from then that I still wonder about was that there seemed to be an anomalous number of rich Abell clusters in pairs. Of course, I haven't kept up with the astrophysical journals since 1975, this may have already been studied and published. I would suspect that clusters are like galaxies and stars, and condense out (according to a power law?) 60% singles, 30% doubles, 10% higher groupings. Lots of the rich Abell clusters have paired galaxies at their center as well.

In spring of 1974, the OSO-7 funding ran out. My boss said that he could get me on the next project (I was basically working in a postdoc position for that wonderful postdoc money), but that if I wanted to stay in the field, I should get my doctorate, etc. I applied to MIT grad school, but my grades were mediocre enough that they wanted me to take a grad course and ace it before they would admit me. Around that time, I met the brightest young astrophysicist in the world (I don't remember his name) when he presented a session at MIT. I was totally up on the literature at the time, and this guy had published really original stuff in 3 or 4 different areas -- unheard of. Anyway, I was talking to him, and he was in his 3rd or 4th year of postdoc, still trying to find an entry level position somewhere. I decided I didn't want to live my life hanging on the whim of congress and the NSF, and moved back to Louisville to look for work.

I still get Sky and Telescope, which does a fairly decent job in keeping up on astronomy and astrophysics. I taught a lot of the constellations to my younger two daughters. But, leaving astrophysics is probably the main thing I look back on in my life and experience a retroactive "urge to clone". But, as I tell my kids, all of life is about making decisions that prune branches from the possibility space of your future. The branches I have wound up in have been fine.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

There have been three main interests in my mental life: astrophysics/cosmology, computer/cognitive science, and music. These are what this blog will focus on, primarily the last two -- the astrophysics was more a thing of my youth. Other interests:
  • Movies. My interests seem to be narrowing, it's harder to watch the formulaic stuff (re a Joe Bob Briggs review, "about time for a car chase").
  • Art. My oldest daughter is an artist, she has greatly broadened my perspectives here. I used to most like Impressionism and didn't have much use for modern art. Now, I am Impressionism and forward, and am getting kind of tired of Impressionism. Very little interest in the old-foo any more.
  • Soccer. I coached all my kids' U8 teams, and my son one year U12, 17 seasons total. I refereed for 12 years, including 8 as a high school ref. Refereeing a good soccer game is very challenging, and very different from writing software. There were times when I had real Zen moments in games, when it is all flowing as it should. But, for every one of those, there were 10 times where some asshole who hadn't the vaguest clue would get in my face and exercise their divine right to abuse referees. And, being a professional, you don't get to tell them where to put their opinion. I retired from refereeing two years ago. I now bike, walk and do aerobics for fitness -- a lot easier on the knees.
Real-time flash -- I got the latest Dar Williams "the beauty of the rain" yesterday (Dar was recommended by my youngest daughter). Kind of standard chick pop at 1st listen, I suspect I will like it more after I listen to it a few times. Best track: a cover of "Whispering Pines", from The Band. Hard to beat Robbie Robertson and the boys.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

I read a lot, and pretty much always have. Books, I read ~60% science fiction with a little fantasy, 30% cognitive science, evolutionary biology, philosophy, etc, 10% computer science. An occasional mystery or suspense novel. I have trouble reading most modern literature. It seems like they are writing for each other, feverishly trying to justify rarified urban existences.

I also read monthly: Scientific American, Technology Review, Sky and Telescope, Free Inquiry (Council of Secular Humanism), Ad Astra (National Space Society), Wired, Dr. Dobbs Journal, C/C++ Journal, MSDN Magazine (god it's hard to read the Microsoft cheerleading), Call Center, Transform. Bi-weekly, Intelligent Enterprise and Software Development Times. Weekly, InfoWorld. Daily, the local newspaper (Knight-RIdder) and various online computer bulletins. I probably read more of Wired than any other of these.

I believe I am about as good as it gets at taking in large quantities of information and putting them together. I am bad at sitting down and creating "something from nothing". I have so much admiration for people who have that type of creativity. My youngest daughter is supposed to be getting me a CD of her performing (vocals and guitar) songs that she has written. My children are all much more creative than I, they must have gotten it from their mother.

Speaking of creativity I read "Creativity", by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no joke) a few years ago. It looks at lots of artists, Nobel prize winners, etc to see what they had in common. The only thing I remember that they shared was journal-keeping. So, too bad for me that we didn't have blogs 30 years ago ;-<

One thing I don't do for information is watch TV or listen to radio. 1) I have always hated to be read to -- too low bandwidth. 2) Reading, if something is bullshit, you can skip it. With TV and radio, it's way too easy for them to force their agenda on you. 3) The images from TV seem to have too much impact. They enflame rather than inform. 4) On the radio, I like to hear music. I mostly listen to CDs in the car, because even the local university station (WRFL, 88.1, all the way to the left) has too much talking at times. Commercial radio is like TV, way too many ads, altho I miss getting to hear what's going to be the newest hit (I have the ear for that).

I make a fairly concerted effort to keep my intake from the advertising stream to a minimum. However, I have lately been taking more of an interest in marketing. If memetics is a science, then marketing is its primary engineering discipline. I think that the dominant cultural force in the world today is American Consumerism, driven by the American marketing machine (the Japanese may possibly have taken this to heart even more than we Americans). I have read a couple of books lately re marketing:

  1. "Coercion, Why We Listen to What "They" Say", by Douglas Rushkoff. Not great, but some stuff of interest. I wasn't particularly aware of sales techniques designed to cause the potential buyer to regress to a childhood state, with the salesperson as the authority figure to be obeyed/pleased. I get annoyed with "soft" books like this when they talk about things and don't give numbered (heirarchical) lists. (The facts, maam, just the facts.) He did give a numbered list of what makes up a cult tho.
  2. William Gibson's latest, "Pattern Recognition". What a great read, I might even agree with the reviews that say it's his best since "Neuromancer"! Gibson is definitely all over marketing as the great molder of a majority of peoples' minds. The protagonist who is violently allergic to certain name brands is fantastic -- marketing as the creator of a new level of (ir)reality.
This past years' Superbowl, I think that 60-70% of the people I talked to were going to watch it for the ads! Advertising, the great native American art form.

One other book that touched on this as well that I really enjoyed was Bruce Sterling's "Zeitgeist". Characters whose actions are constrained by how far they are off of the current (marketing) concensus reality?!?!? I think this is my favorite of Sterling's novels.

Monday, May 05, 2003

Talking about "Consilience", I really enjoyed that book -- I read it a chapter at a time, reading other stuff in between. Wilson's basic idea is that the time has come to use the scientific method on the soft sciences: psychology, sociology, economics, religion. He has a lot of fun kicking deconstructionism around -- for instance, the Derida Paradox: if the reader can never know what the writer was trying to say, why should anyone read Derida? At the end, he talks about the possibility of the coming of the cybernetic singularity, and concludes that, if it happens, it wouldn't make us happy -- we are too much a product of 1 million years of monkey brain (or 250 million years of vertebrate brain). I have always liked Daniel Dennett ("Conscious Explained", "Darwin's Dangerous Idea") because he lambastes evolutionary biologists who insist that the human mind is "different" -- that there is a spark, a soul, something that couldn't be created by evolution. Wilson I don't think is taking that route, but it saddened me that he doesn't think we can leave a lot of that old crap behind us. Part of the point of moving to silicon would be to be able to rewrite our routines to get rid of the non-productive stuff. So, is the monkey brain stuff really necessary? In a fit of barroom brilliance, at one point I proclaimed that as long as you could write the code for a simulated hard-on, that would be enough to satisfy most people.

I read Wilson's "The Diversity of Life" a few years ago. I was really disappointed in this book, because I wanted it to give absolutely compelling arguments in favor of biodiversity as an absolute goal, and it didn't. Reasons for disappointment:

  1. At this point, they don't know the number of species on the planet to 2 orders of magnitude (a factor of 100). If you're not within 1/2 order of magnitude (a factor of 3), you are pretty much clueless of what the number is.
  2. Having varieties is healthy, re an example of where grafting a wild coffee strain into the commercial ones saved the crops from a blight, but, in the Andes, each mountain is its own biosphere and contains completely unique species. Do we really need all of them? No compelling argument.
No doubt about it, the die out is coming. Maybe the gene sequencing stuff can save some of the genomes before the species extincts -- a race against time.

BTW, I have been linking book references to Barnes & Noble because Amazon has pissed me off by: a) trying to do too much (the Microsoft syndrome); and b) losing my wishlist when they acquired cdnow.com.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

Call me Ishmael ... I'm sorry, I had to say that.

I had been planning on writing some cool software to encapsulate my thoughts on the meaning of existence, but, given that I work 50-60 hour weeks, with half of that spent writing commercial software, and that age is catching up with me (somewhat), I don't think that's going to happen. Hence, the blog.

When I was young, I always was disappointed by old people. I thought they were supposed to be wise and stuff. Mostly, the ones I knew seemed to be stuck in loops that they hadn't tried to change for the last 30 years or so. ("I'm an Amuracun citizen, I have a right to my opinions, no matter how ignorant or outmoded, etc.")

I have always enjoyed children. Their minds are so much more open to new ideas. So, as my children (4) have grown, I have had lots of good talks with them and their friends. I think that the general concensus is that I have some interesting insights that they have enjoyed hearing, and my kids are now mostly gone ... So, I guess I need another forum to dispense my WOW (Words of Wisdom, aka bullshit) from -- hence, the blog

Brief bio: Born 1951 in Louisville, KY, 2nd of 7 (MMMFFMF). Raised Catholic. Graduated MIT, BS Physics 1972. 2 years, MIT Center for Space Research staff scientist. Returned to Louisville in 1974, worked as an engineer until 1977, then went to work for DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation, eaten by Compaq, eaten by HP) and have worked in software development ever since. Moved to Lexington, KY in 1980. Married 27 years, 4 children (MFFF) current ages 26-20.

Overall belief structure. I have 3 beliefs and one hope:

  1. Something is better than nothing. Lots of ways to say this. Basically, we exist. If we didn't, something else would. Nature abhors a vacuum. Existentially, it means you like to dance. Mytho-poetically: the great mother, the void, was lonely. Her loneliness created a potential from which the universe sprang into existence. The universe expands and contracts, making love to the nothingness. Clearly, I am a pulsating universe fan. I am really having trouble getting behind the current open universe / dark energy stuff.
  2. The force of life is strong. Once anything learns to replicate, you can't stop it. Evolution is the song of life. I had totally believed that we would find life almost everywhere in the universe. But, maybe not -- see for instance "Rare Earth" -- the idea of which is that it takes a lot of things to happen right for intelligent life to develop.
  3. Children are sacred. I used to have just 2 beliefs. I think you can derive #3 from #2, but I decided, it's worth emphasizing anyway. I was talking with my middle daughter today, currently Seeking after Truth, she was espousing that there was no good and evil (more Zen than Nietzsche I think), and I disagreed. To me harming children is always wrong, no matter what. This is a moral absolute.
Finally, the hope:
  1. I hope the human race survives 1 million years. In "The Diversity of Life", Edmond O. Wilson (the ant man, father of sociobiology) says that the average life of a species is ~ 1 million years. In "Consilience", he says that homo sapiens sapiens (us) has been around for ~ 200,000 years. So, imagine the human race in 800,000 years. That's ~150 times the length of recorded human history. It boggles the mind. Also, "the hope" I think reminds me of how incredibly young humanity and human civilization are, on biological, geological, or astronomical time scales.
At a more detailed level, I agree pretty much with the principles of the Council of Secular Humanism. I give them money, as well as the ACLU (it's great to be a card-carrying member!) and Planned Parenthood. My children were all raised as atheists and have all pretty much thanked my wife and I for that.

Enough for now. Time to have a smoke and then watch "Law and Order" (the only TV I watch besides this is occasionally the Daily Show with John Stewart, and, of course, South Park. The Simpsons is very good, but it's on too early for me).