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).