Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Why Democracy Doesn't Work

Standing on the train station as a train pulled in, I watched everyone clustered round the door, everyone jostling for position, not even leaving enough room for anyone to get off. And I suddenly thought “that’s why the world’s in such a financial mess.” It’s every man for himself!

A human’s natural state is to be led, to be controlled. We need to follow a leader, to be told what to do. But we also have an inbuilt need to strive for freedom, a desire to be the leader ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we need freedom. That way lies anarchy, and anarchy doesn’t work, because as individuals we also have a drive for self-preservation, and a self-serving attitude gets in the way when you’re trying to do what’s best for your social group.

You can have too much freedom.

We may be human, but we’re not as unique as we would like to think we are. We’re still simians, and there are lots of other examples of simian society that give us a very good insight into our own natural drives. Look at Mountain Gorillas. Alpha male keeping a family group stable through a kind of benign dictatorship. Do gorillas have an individual drive for freedom? Of course they do. All the males are constantly working towards the time when they can challenge the silverback for leadership. Gorilla society works, as does Chimpanzee or Monkey society. But if you gave them the freedom that a lot of human social groups have, their society would very quickly fall apart.

Our problem is that we’ve mistaken a Desire for Freedom for a Right to Freedom, and that mistake has permeated the whole of Western Civilisation, to the extent that although we still appoint leaders, we no longer allow them to do anything we don’t want them to. Effectively we have removed the decision-making process from the Silverback and placed it in the hands of the rest of the troop. The power now resides with those lower down the pecking order, individuals who would not normally have such power, are unprepared for it, and ill-equipped to deal with it.

On a human level, why invest decision-making power in the hands of people who may have no understanding of the situation that requires the decision? Calling for a Referendum on some political issue for example, when the majority of people who will be voting in the referendum do not understand the issue they’re voting on. Look at the Iraq issue. Remember the Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Western military waded in? Iraq surrendered, and everyone pulled out. What did everyone in the West say? “They had him on the ropes, they should have finished him off!” Fast forward a decade to the fall of Saddam Hussain, and now everyone’s saying we should never have invaded. And Western leaders are now bowing to public pressure and (in the case of Barack Obama) using a pledge to pull out of Iraq as part of their election manifesto.

How many times in the past 40 years have strong political leaders in this country been forced out by a combination of public opinion and the machinations of their peers? We’ve got to a state now where our political leaders govern not through what they think is right, but by what public opinion dictates. Major political decisions are taken based on what the public thinks and wants, not on what may well be good for the public as a whole.

But of course, when our leaders are not elected because they are strong and have proved their ability to lead, but because we like the look and the sound of them, what criteria is that for running a country, or even a Civilisation?

No wonder we’re fucked.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Empty Man

Think of yourself as a suit of armour. No I don’t mean your body, I mean your “Self”, you know, the person in your mind who looks out of your eyes. The person you think is You. No I’m not using this suit of armour analogy for the usual reasons. Yes, armour can mean protection, something to hide behind. But in this case there is another aspect of armour that makes it particularly apposite. Armour is made up of lots of different bits and pieces, all bolted together. And what do they make? What does a suit of armour look like?

It looks like a person. And that’s how You are constructed. Out of bits and pieces of bolt-on personality. Everything that makes a human a person has been carefully fitted, screwed on, slotted in, until the end result appears to be a normal person.

This is the Empty Man.

But hey, what exactly is this sham suit of armour actually mimicking? Why, all the other people around you of course. It’s built and constructed to fit in with the current social structure that its wearer wishes to live in. So you build it out of the same materials, using the same social bolt-ons that everyone else uses. So you fit in.

So in a sense the Empty Man is a necessary part of our whole social interaction with our species, and probably evolved in tandem with our species’ own social evolution. But is the Empty Man simply a mirroring, a copy of our own inner personality, the essential Self-Awareness of every person, the “I”? Surely if our Mind already contains an “I”, why would we then see the need to model one? Why couldn’t we use the one that we already have?

Well…perhaps we don’t already have one. Let’s look at what our “Self” actually is. OK, it’s what makes You…You. It’s the person inside your head who does the thinking, who makes the decision, who talks to people, who actually sits there looking out of your eyes. But what do we actually need a “Self” for? We need to know when we’re happy, when we’re sad, when we’re angry, when we’re hungry, when we’re tired. Hang on though. When we’re hungry we eat. When we’re tired we sleep. We don’t need a concept of Self for that. A Flatworm can do all these things, and it doesn’t have a Self. Right, but what about being happy or sad, or angry? Well these are emotions, and as such are social aspects of your personality. There’s not much point in being happy or sad or angry, if there’s no-one around for you to share these emotions with.

Let’s face it, we only need a concept of Self in order to interact with other members of our species. That’s the point of the Suit of Armour that is the essence of the Empty Man. It’s a construct to enable us to live in the Human World.

So if we already have a constructed personality, in the Empty Man, and we only really need a Self in order to interact with other people, is it reasonable to assume that the Empty Man actually is the Self?

Yup, that’s probably it. The reality behind our Self-Awareness is this: Our model of the Human World around us contains a detailed construct of Ourselves, a model so detailed that it thinks it is alive. However, it isn’t a model of anything that exists. It isn’t a copy of our Self...it is our Self.

And that’s the secret of the Empty Man. Like a suit of armour, he is truly empty. He walks around the stage of life, strutting his stuff, forever refining his image by adding new personality traits here and removing obsolete attitudes there. A false smile for this occasion, some sincere honesty for that, and a squirming bag of unhealthy desire to flavour the mix. Far from creating a model that we can drive around inside our heads, we have created a personality that extends into the Human World and drives around inside us.

Not only that , but in order for us to function correctly, we have to integrate hidden, sometimes unsightly, parts of our personality into the Empty Man as well. We all have parts of our persona that no-one knows about. Guilty shameful secrets that only we are aware of. Naughty things that range from a hopeless infatuation for someone we can never have, right down to an unhealthy obsession with someone we should never go near. Without these hidden desires, the Empty Man wouldn’t be a true representative of all that we are, and all that we want to be. Of course these hidden aspects are just that…hidden. So why incorporate them at all? Well, because they are all parts of your human personality, and as such they all need a voice. These secretive parts of our nature may not be part of our visible armour, but they still colour our interactions with other people, the way we might talk to someone we secretly find attractive, for example. Although we might never allow that person to know our true feelings, those feelings still have a strong influence on how we interact with them.

If you doubt this premise, there is plenty of evidence to back it up. Look at the development of a child. At birth a child is armourless, but almost within weeks that begins to change as the child looks to the adults around it (and it's parents in particular) for behavioural clues to mimic and incorporate into it's own social makeup. You can almost see their personalities forming in front of your eyes. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4 a child learns to lie. This coincides with their sudden ability to generalise about the world around them, and for the first time to put themselves into “another person’s shoes”. This is the first beginnings of the Empty Man, and if this is true, then we are all Empty.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Thoughts from the Anarchy of my Mind

Why can’t I stop smoking? There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t think maybe I’ll quit this evening, scrunch the packet and throw it away. But I never do, and yesterday I really looked into my reasons for this.

OK so it’s the addiction that prevents me from stopping, but how exactly does that work? Well it changes my thought processes, making the decision to keep on smoking more attractive than the decision to quit. So far so good.

But what is actually happening in my brain? Examining my feelings, I find that I’m actually not looking forward to my own reactions afterwards. I know from experience that the next few days will find me annoyed and stressed, angry at my own decision to quit. I am fully aware that my mind is a fragmented affair, consisting of several separate units of emotion and thought, so I have put this down to me not wanting to experience the angriness and frustration of the part of my personality that is actually addicted.

I’m scared of discomfort.

Now any normal human being is scared of discomfort and pain, and I suspect this is controlled by an inate "self-preservation module”. Mind would appear to be very highly developed. Certainly there is evidence for this in my past behaviour. I dislike and avoid confrontation with other people. I don’t like trying something new, especially if there is a real risk it will hurt me, or I won’t like it. I have to really force myself to undertake tasks where the outcome is uncertain. I don’t like to stray outside my comfort zone, I don’t like to take risks, and I’ve seen this behaviour in my (currently 10 year old) son. The only times I can seem to override these feelings are with respect to other people whom I have a vested emotional interest in (e.g. members of my family), or in situations where the "self-preservation module" weighs up the pros and cons and realises that taking the risk may result in a Big Reward…or not taking the risk may result in more discomfort than the risk itself.

For example:

Taking nasty-tasting medicine to get better.
Running for a bus.
Suppressing my natural dislike of fairground rides for the sake of my kids.

In all these cases the outcome is clear and substantial – you get better (and hence feel better), you avoid the grief of being late for the bus (even though physical exertion makes you uncomfortable), and you avoid the profound parental disappointment when your kids can’t go on a ride because you don’t want to.

Unfortunately packing in smoking doesn’t give you such an immediately identifiable win. In order to persuade your mind to allow you to quit, you’ve got to give it an incentive. It's got to be something good to offset the very obvious bad (craving, irritation, nerves), and it’s got to be something simple and obvious that the relatively simple components of your mind can understand. Nothing esoteric and intellectual.


Unfortunately it's very difficult to find one. You’re not going to feel better immediately afterwards. You won’t look more attractive to the opposite sex, instantly lose weight (in most cases the opposite), or generally feel much happier and healthier. Although some of these things actually will happen eventually, in the short term, you will feel worse.

Faced with such odds, it’s no wonder your self-preservation instincts almost always persuade you that packing in smoking is a bad idea.


Now about personal confrontation...

Friday, 12 September 2008

Life is like a Zip file

OK, so you've got this Buddhist mate, right...and you ask him “What’s the secret of life?”, and he replies “All life is an illusion, dude.” So you think WTF does that mean? Life is an illusion? That like doesn’t mean anything! You might as well say life is a banana, or life is a train track, or a seagull, or a molecule. It doesn’t make any sense!

So you go away and you learn about Psychology, and you find out how the world looks to Psychotics and Neurotics, and they like see the world differently, and then you learn about Neuropsychology and you find out about Pattern Recognition and Modelling and Perception and Memory and stuff, and about how the brain actually works.

And then you get into Quantum Physics and you find out how the universe works at the sub-atomic level of particles and stuff, and you learn how everything is like really dependent on probability; and you find out about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, like how you can’t really tell where anything in the world is at a certain time, and how everything is really just energy.

And after all that you finally realise that the universe is just illusion, and so you get back to your Buddhist mate and you say “You were right, dude!”, and he sort of nods sagely and says Yeah, because like he’s known this all along.

But you see the problem is that he’s condensed all of that down into…into one short phrase – “Life Is An Illusion” but he’s left all the like baggage out, so without all that background you don’t know what the phrase means. You have to go through all the like science and shit to find it out.

It’s like he’s compressed it all into this one phrase, but he’s used lossy compression, like an mp3 or a jpeg of the whole thing, and he’s used such high compression that most of the stuff has been removed, so you can’t get it all back from the end result, like. Other stuff you can, like E=MC2 which is like a zip file, it’s lossless, and all the stuff is still there. If you put the numbers back in, it like still works. But “Life Is An Illusion”...well it just doesn’t work!

A Glimpse of the Nongod

Big Bang, right? Instant of creation. The entire Universe's complement of fundamental particles (aka "matter") created there and then, from an area of space that less than a pico-second ago had zero volume, infinite energy density...and no Time.

Yup that's the thing. No time. No Prior To, and no Just Before. And with infinite energy density (not infinite energy, mind), there's no room for data either. So no Information.

If you want to comprehend exactly what the situation before the Big Bang was like, think Black Hole in reverse, a Singularity. Only instead of matter compressing into Zero Space, it expands from it.

So putting aside the question of "how" or "when" the Universe decided to be born (there's no time, so you can't use "hows" and "whens" anyway. Re-phrase your question.), what about the fundamental laws of physics? Were they created at the same time? Well, if there's no way that any information can exist during the infinite density period "before" the Big Bang, then surely Laws of Physics count as Information? For the first proton to be constructed according to such Laws, information about these laws must exist prior to the Big Bang, otherwise how the blazes does the Universe know how to build a proton.

Doesn't this mean the only logical choice is that this information was somehow placed into the Zero Space before Creation started? An event that probably caused the Big Bang to "start" anyway? This of course requires the existance of some meta-space and meta-time for this information to come from.

And of course since this meta-Universe must also have started in the same fashion...where did it get its initial jump-start from?

Well it may not be God, but it would appear that there is still "something" out there.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

From Carpenter Bees to Life On Earth

That’s when it all happened you know, back then with the advent of the social insect. One version of the bee went down the Hive mind route, whereas other versions went down the socially “independent” route – carpenter bees for example. At that point I think the carpenter bee evolved to effectively sidestep what must have been the logical conclusion of the entire evolution of the bee species, right back to the beginnings of life itself.

Look at how life has evolved, from simplicity to complexity, and on a cellular level from independence (and vulnerability) to coexistence (and security). Single-celled organisms joined to become multi-cellular organisms (compare, say, Influenza virus, with…a human body). The trend is towards integration, ultimate communism, in which each individual unit (cell/virus/packet of DNA) is bred for a specific purpose and is controlled and directed from life to death, but then is almost certain to live out that life and die a quiet expected death.

However there does exist other “modes of living” than integration. Viruses are essentially small packets of DNA that are not integrated into a communal “body” in the way than a multi-cellular organism such as a human is. And this decision is repeated again and again at increasingly macroscopic levels. A bee (itself a multi-cellular conglomerate) decides to take a more “individual-oriented” direction in life. Animals decide to live in herds, then improve their chances by evolving selfish behavioural strategies. Even up to humans deciding to live in tribes…and then attacking other tribes. Isn’t that a strive towards diversity and individualism as well?

It is, if you look at life on Earth as a whole. But if you take one individual species and only view those changes in relation to the species itself, you get a different picture. Look at homo sapiens. At some point the DNA in all our cells existed inside various scattered uni-cellular organisms. Some time in this distant cellular past the mutation coin was tossed – shall we remain individuals, or become part of a collective. Actually you can probably trace this back to when a single cell replicated and something happened (a mutation in DNA) to change the way the cell behaved during replication. A tendency to “hold on” to the sibling cell that has just been created, rather than allow it to drift off into an individual (and probably short) life. In fact I bet that’s it. If a cell has stayed in a place long enough, that place is probably likely to be “safe”, so therefore any offspring (or clones really) might have a better chance of survival if they stayed in the same vicinity as their parent. Pure weight of statistical chance ensures that if you’ve lived long enough, you’re likely to be living in a place that your offspring would also live long in.

If you look at it at that level, you can see that the simple evolutionary advantage of forming a close bond with the cell that just produced you, is not questionable. It’s blindingly obvious by looking at simple statistics. So at that point in the development in the cell, if that kind of mutation occurs, it will ensure its propagation successfully each time, simply through the numbers.

So the decision is won when you get to that level, by collectivism. Ignore viruses, they just haven’t got to the decision yet. But then when you get further of the evolutionary line that leads to you or me, you get asked the question again, and this time on the “organism” level. That is to say mutation occurs in one of the organism’s cells that is then passed on completely to one or more offspring. We’re dealing with a collective of cells, cells who have lost the right to individualism billions of generations ago, but the decision is now being made at a higher level, and groups of higher cells are involved. The decision is being made by the organism itself (you or me).

Let me straighten that out. The decision is still resulting from a mutation in the DNA of a single cell, but the mutation is not affecting the cell individually, rather the properties, or behaviour of the collective as a whole. In effect evolutionary change is affecting the structure of the organism as a whole, the cells themselves change relatively little. There I go again, it’s still triggered by a mutation in a single cell, and thereby directly affecting that cell’s behaviour. Though of course it’s only random mutations in sex cells that get passed on to the next generation. Although random mutations do occur in single cells, there’s no way the DNA from your relcitrant liver cell is going to be transferred to your gametes...especially if you’re a girl, because your gametes are already formed before you are born.

Anyway, as we can see the decision is a highly successful one for “collectivism” at whatever level you make it. It always works. Unless of course a cell or organism is in a situation which appears safe, but is only so due to a statistical glitch – the apparent decrease in mortality rate of the previous generational line. But ultimately whenever a cell…or an organism…or a herd of organisms…or a tribe of humans...is faced with this decision, it should almost always be the safest course of action. And of course viewed only along the generational line of one species, it is the safest. Multi-cellular organisms cover the planet, so multi-cellularism was a good choice of that particular cell back then. Every species also tends to group together, in a sort of meta-organism, be that a flock, a tribe, a city, or a country. There are exceptions of course at any level, but looked at introspectively, each one is simply the result of a decision that hasn’t been made, because the question has not yet been asked.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Eleison

You sought me, as you sought some inner part of yourselves. As though you could find it in me. You followed me as one follows an obsession. You named me God, and your praises drowned my denial. You stole my faith, for who then was I to believe in?

“Aka-re-ah!” - “God-made-Flesh!” You gave me the loneliness of a man without a destiny to call his own.

On the road to Ibella, in the dusk, was I first betrayed. For there it was said I cured a blind man. On the mount at Seth I raised Orlena from the dead. In the town of Cartaz the waters were turned to spirit at the Congress of Semion.

Even to my miraculous birth, attended by Emperors and Kings, all shall be recorded in the scriptures to come.

“Abara! Abara! E’kalam Abara!” So they cried as I entered the City for the last time, riding on the back of a young Tharil. That shall also be in the Book, when it is written.

I blessed Josell, he who identified me to the Voron guards. I blessed the young warrior who whipped me on my way to the Woorn - the Abode of the Condemned. I blessed the world, in the name of myself, in the name of a God I could no longer believe in.

And now the twin moons have set, and it is dark here on the hillside. The lights of the City are dimming as my sight blurs. The nails, in my shoulders, my arms, my tail, are as tongues of fire. It is hard to breathe.

In future ages they will bow down before the holy sign of the Scaffold, and relive my pain.
And even here, now, will they allow me to die?

“My God! Why did you forsake me?”
There is no answer...

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Stoned

You know when you're stoned, your brain sort of goes into hyperdrive. Everything seems to work more efficiently, quicker. Of course this brain boost doesn't necessarily make the results any more correct. In reality your brain is firing on a lot more cylinders than usual, in particular your pattern-recognition system. That now notices everything, and tries to match it up with something familiar. Since it's got access to the whole of your memories, which are now also running on all cylinders, it can quickly match things up and make you think you're seeing/hearing something you're not. Odd repetetive noises, like the hum of a computer, the faint whirring of the fridge freezer, can be immediately (and inaccurately) attributed to something familiar. Like distant music on the edge of hearing, or the sounds of people talking, but you just can't make out the words.

Why does it do this? Does it make matches at random, because it's not...working properly? Or does it know what it's doing, and simply chooses to do it? Like your pattern-recognition system is actually liking what it's doing, deliberately feeding you inappropriate information...but it's a gas, right? Such a massive dose on the old CBD receptors..it's like Party Time!

Of course not all patterns are aural. The old pattern-recognition system can make you interpret what you see differently, what you feel, shit, even what you think! It can affect your social system too. For example, making you interpret a friend's conversation as something altogether more sinister. Has Steve got an ulterior motive? What did he really mean when he said that?

Something about Steve's look or voice reminds you of an actor in a certain movie, and immediately that character overlays on top of your view of your friend. Thus paranoia starts. Add to that the fact that you sometimes hear people talking who aren't there, and you start to look like textbook paranoid-schizophrenic!

Makes you wonder if there's a sort of moderator system in the brain, something that keeps the other systems in line. You know, stops this process overriding that process. Like you want to have a normal conversation with your friend Steve, but you keep treating him as if he's a sort of bad alter-ego of himself. That's a pattern-recognition system intruding forcefully on the rest of the brain.

Perhaps the Moderator system is himself stoned, and joining in the party? Yeah guys, go ahead, you do what you want. Make him think Steve's actually Gary Oldman, and he wants to kill him. What the hell...it's Party Time!

Hmmm...my skin feels like velvet, no, more like felt, fuzzy felt. And my mouth feels like...like my teeth are huge! They're like Stonehenge, man.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Land of the Giants

Land of the Giants, right? I reckon it struck a chord with a lot of kids, because it’s a classic childhood fear – that of being threatened by something much bigger than you, making you feel helpless…like adults.

And I got to thinking. If this was an evolved response, what did it signify, how did it come about, and what good does it do? If it’s a naturally selected trait, then it must confer an advantage to the individual.

What is a fear actually for? Well as a controlling mechanism it makes us avoid certain things or situations, by giving us a “painful” stimulus, i.e. a feeling we don’t like. In that way it plays a similar part as “pain”, only not so severe, and generally before an injury rather than after it (when pain kicks in).

If the brain wants to reward the body and create a learned response as well, it gives us a burst of endorphins when we do something right. But that “quick buzz” is only rewarded after the successful event, because it gives the person something to work towards.

However how do you use a reward system to prevent a person doing something, rather than reward them for doing something? It doesn’t work logically. You have to use an aversion system. That’s what fear is.

So fear of giants is a learned aversion response. What good does it convey to the individual?

Ok, let’s look at what kind of individual it might help. Well one still capable of offspring, and depending on how far back you want to go, that could be a very early age range. With a life-expectancy of 30, you could be looking at early teens or more likely mid childhood.


When I say “learned response”, by the way I don’t mean that it’s learned from other people, or learned while growing up. Rather the mechanism in the brain that provides the feeling of fear. This is what ultimately “programmes” the individual with a fear of this, a dislike of that. That's what learns, the rest of the brain. The brain makes a decision about a couple of directions to go (for example, down the stairs into the dark, or back up into the light), and although it knows why it doesn’t want to go a particular way (it’s dark, it could be dangerous, you could get hurt), it can’t tell other parts of the body these concepts. If it wants the heart to start pounding, it can’t explain the reasons to the heart, it has to do something simple. It produces the feeling of fear which is really a huge cocktail of physiological changes – stimulating glands (adrenal), increasing heart rate, saliva reduction.

So what good does an effect like this do? Well people will point to adrenaline increase, heart rate increase, as the best way of getting the body ready for sustained flight or fight. But there’s more. Why the feeling of dread? That doesn't serve any purpose in getting parts of the body ready for action. The only thing it does is make us feel acutely uncomfortable. That’s what fear is about isn’t it? Dread of what might happen. The “what might happen” is from our conscious mind, because the mind can understand complex concepts, and can be constantly thinking ahead to the “monsters” being just ahead in the dark, or the fact that we’re about to do something we don’t want to.

But there’s a sort of “overlay” of very uncomfortable trepidation. Why that? Is that just a side-effect of the change in hormone levels? Or is it caused by some as yet unknown chemical effect, e.g. from serotonin levels?

OK, can’t answer the above, and for the purpose of the original question it’s irrelevant anyway. It doesn’t answer the question of what the organism gains from it. “Survival” is too broad a term, although survival of the genes is definitely the major factor. But survival how? Since it’s a fear probably generated around adults, it must be caused by something in the relationship between adult and child.


Oh how silly of me. Of course it’s ultimately an “avoidance of strange adults or they might kill you” aversion effect isn’t it? More correctly it probably means “avoid strange things larger than you that you do not recognise as friendly”

Things larger than you are obviously predators that could eat you, so the response has been around for a very very long time. However I think the human race has a more specialised version of the fear response, grafted on like a plugin, a species-specific version telling us to avoid members of our own species if they are larger than us. For most cases this is accompanied by the same physical effects associated with "fear", and the same overall "feeling" from the old "avoid the big monsters" original response.

If that’s the case, it can’t have evolved to assist adults (although of course it has assisted to them reaching adulthood), where most people will rarely meet someone much bigger than then. However there is a state of human development where almost everyone we meet is a lot bigger than us. When we are children, it causes us to avoid “adult” individuals who we do not recognise.

Why avoid them? Because they might cause us pain. Simple as that. A child can’t already have a learned response to concepts like murder, abduction, and rape, since it needs to have this aversion long before it truly understands those concepts. So the simple avoidance of pain is the only thing to use at that age.

The only scenario where a simple response like this could evolve in such a generalised one-size-fits-all form, is in an early primate, where any non-recognised adult you met probably would kill you.

Actually I’ve just realised from those last two paragraphs, that while pain is a very direct response, causing us a feeling that we just can’t bear…fear is the anticipation of pain. So that means this response only works on a species that can think, or at least understand the concept of “the future”. Because that’s what it’s about really isn’t it? Fear is the anticipation of something in the future that may cause us pain. It’s quite a complex thing isn’t it? So it’s still way back in our primate past, but not that far back. If chimpanzees have it as well, then it goes back at least to our common ancestor.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Teleportation

So what about those scientists in Austria & the US who successfully teleported atoms ?

Well, in 2004 actually. But the story surfaces every year or so (like the one in the UK with the Star Trek Next Generation house - that one's been around for aeons).

What they actually do is transmit the state of one atom to another, via entanglement. Suffice to say what it does is more or less transform a distant atom into an identical version of the original one...while leaving the original one still in existance.

Yeah, that's the thing. None of this "matter stream" nonsense. You don't actually "beam" the object anywhere, you beam information about it, and recreate it at the other end. So let's wonder what happens when the technology is sufficient to teleport macro-sized objects (i.e. things we can actually see). We'll basically have a replication device - admittedly the amount of energy we're going to have to put in to create something the size of an average human being is going to be staggering, but go with me here - anything we send there...will also still remain here.

So if we teleport a human, we end up with two humans. It's an expensive method of reproduction, but not only that, which one is the real one? Both can claim to be, and regardless of the fact that one was created out of energy only moments before, after the event they should both be as real as each-other. The legal aspects alone should keep the Law fraternity busy for years.

So how did Star Trek get round this? Well if I remember correctly, they used the energy created by disintegrating the person to reform the person at the other end.

That's right. When Star Fleet transports you, the process involves killing you first. How the blazes did they get their Computers to sanction that? Surely any AI worth it's Asimovs would pull the plug quicker than Scotty can say "Energize"?

Actually I think this issue was addressed years ago, in a novel by Algis Budrys - "Rogue Moon". Which makes this post kind of redundant. What do I care, I'm driving to Leamington Spa in 15 minutes.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Why do men prefer long hair on women?

I was on Hairfinder.com (don't ask) when I started reading this article about why men like long hair on women. It went on about the usual stuff - cultural norms and expectations, long hair indicates commitment of money and daily care on the part of the woman, indicating that men find these characteristics desirable in a partner.

My son is 10, and my daughter is 5. I doubt very much that they or their contemporaries make such shrewd judgments about financial or health status when deciding to fancy someone with long hair. The fact of the matter is that Andrew says the most liked girls in his class have long hair, and Amy says boys want to kiss her because she has long (blond) hair.

OK, so the article goes on to mention that the preference for long hair is most likely evolutionary rather than cultural. Looking good. Except then it drags up the old chestnut that evolutionary theory says men prefer long hair on women because it is an indicator of reproductive fitness.

I'm sorry, but again do my kids have any idea of reproductive fitness?

Let's face it, it's the usual chicken & egg blind evolutionary botch-job. Men are genetically programmed to like women with long hair...because they are descended from individuals who have the "I like long hair" gene(s). This gene is obviously a very successful one, but why?

Well how about this? Men like long hair, so will have a tendency to mate with long-haired women. If you're a woman with long hair, surrounded by men who like long hair, there's more chance of your genetic material being passed onto the next generation, simply because you will have a pretty good chance of being impregnated by one of these men. If your female offspring also have a tendency to long, fast-growing hair, then those genes will also propagate.

Men meanwhile are doing the same thing. By mating with the long-haired woman, they are ensuring that their genes are also successfully propagated into succeeding generations.

But who started it? Well no-one. You see evolution is blind. It's the numbers and sheer amount of time that causes these things to happen. Women aren't actively choosing to evolve long hair, and men aren't actively choosing to find it attractive. The individuals aren't doing anything at all, just living their lives and giving in to their impulses. It's the drip-drip-drip of the genetic lottery that's slowly manipulating each individual and species down the line.

You've only got to look at the Peacock to see this taken to an extreme. Does the Peacock have such a ridiculous display of feathers simply because the Peahen likes it? I suspect the Peahen is as much a blind evolutionary result as the Peacock is. The more opulent his feathers, the more successful he will be at mating, and the more he will further his genes (in particular the "having great turquoise feathers" gene)...because the hens like a big-feathered bird. But the hen also seeks out the cock with the best display to maximise the propagation of her genes (in particular the "liking great turquoise feathers" gene). But again it's not that either of them are actively seeking this, for these reasons. All the individuals have is a tendency to find certain characteristics attractive. However, over the time-scales of millennia, these little tendencies are just enough to eventually produce individuals trapped in an evolutionary straight-jacket fashioned from generation upon generation of drip-drip-drip selective breeding.

So think on that next time you admire your face, your hair, your eyes, the shape of your butt, in the mirror. You think your body's your own, but it isn't, and it hasn't been for at least the last million years.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Jump!

Have you ever stood on the edge of a high steep drop and felt the urge to jump off? People talk about it all the while. What's the point of that then? Having a sudden desire to jump off a precipice doesn't sound like a very good evolutionary adaptation?

Admittedly everyone mentions this, but no-one ever actually does it. I wonder if it's a trait inherited from a brachiating ancestor? Let's look at what actually happens when you're peering over the edge of the Forth Bridge, or hanging onto a very high tree. We have a very strong drive for self-preservation that tends to warn us when we're on the edge of a dangerous drop. But if you're a tree-swinging ape that's a bit of a hindrance. You'd never get anywhere if you were too scared to move.

So what's the answer? You can momentarily suppress the self-preservation mechanism, but that's pretty dangerous. What happens when you swing across and land on a tree with a resident snake and your instinct for caution is dampened? OK, so if suppression isn't the answer, how about another instinct that is far stronger and temporarily overrides the need for caution?

In order for that to work you've got to have some kind of very quick reward system, otherwise how are you going to get your brachiating ape to leave his lofty perch and leap into the unknown?

This would appear to be a good system then - while you're hanging onto a swinging tree-trunk, you see another branch within reach. You get a sudden rush of adrenalin, and a voice in your head yells "Jump!". You leap across, successfully grab the branch, and you're rewarded with a nice tasty endorphin rush.

This explains the contradiction between the feeling of caution and the anticipatory desire to jump that we get on the edge of a precipice. There's no branch there to leap to, but the ancient mechanism still kicks in from time to time. Also neatly explains the buzz that sky-divers get, and why they keep doing it.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Self-Sacrifice

You know that human "self-sacrifice" thing? You know, when someone gives up their life to save one or more other people, like their family or crew. What's that all about then? How can that kind of behaviour evolve in a creature using our best current understanding of evolution?

I mean what does it achieve for the individual? Nothing. You might argue that in the case of sacrificing yourself to save your relatives, it helps copies of your genes to survive. But hang on here, when that impulse kicks in, you're basically dead a few minutes later, you don't have time to pass these genes on to anyone else. But then I guess that any genes that increase your ability for self-sacrifice automatically protect close relatives that will be also be carrying those genes.

So like if I'm surrounded by my family and I decide to die to save them, those genes are going to passed on more successfully than if my self-preservation/cowardice had kicked in, and I had allowed my relatives to die. Or would they?

What if I'm younger than the people my dying saves? They could be my grandparents. What then? Would I make a snap subconscious decision to prioritise myself? It seems to depend more on my emotional contact than in any kind of subconcious weighing up of probabilities (on my patent "Geneto-monitor"). This also explains why people would sacrifice themselves to safe non-related individuals (Wars are good for examples of this). The emotional contact overrides any kind of blind genetic manipulation, like the soldier taking a bullet for his mate because he knows he's got 5 kids at home.

Maybe it's a very broad-minded genetic trait. Maybe it's parameters of operation are somewhat wider than immediate relatives. Maybe it starts from "same species" down.

That's a pretty wild and wacky set of genes there. What an incredible behavioural mechanism that would be (or indeed is) - by simply producing an individual with an impulse for self-sacrifice, not bound by familial ties (see Larry Niven's book "Protector"), these genes assure that by saving as many other individuals as we can, any copies of themselves carried by those individuals are also saved.

There doesn't seem to be any case that humans were any less or more self-serving in the past, although it's not really something you can get accurate figures for, so perhaps it's not a very successful genetic trait, merely managing to...tread water, so to speak...for the past 50,000 years. On the other hand, information about instances of "self-sacrifice" is pretty sparse, since you just never got to hear about it.

Maybe you still don't hear of most of the times it happens. Maybe it happens a lot more than you think. Maybe it's a very successful set of genes in there. Maybe without it, the human race would have perished thousands of years ago.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Q: Do you believe in God?

A: No.

Q: So you don’t believe in life after death then?

A: Well I believe that life will carry on after I die. If I died now, you would still be alive, as would everyone else in this room. Unless of course the cause of my death was a nuclear detonation.

Q: How about your own life? You don’t believe it would carry on in some form after your own death?

A: How could it? The word “death” means the cessation of life. How could my life end, and yet carry on, at the same time? The very concept is illogical.

Q: Well, your consciousness, your self, might continue to exist in some way. That is after all what belief in an afterlife is.

A: Ah, consciousness and self. The thing that makes me…me. Again, no. There does not seem to be any mechanism for continuing the consciousness after the body that contains it has ceased to function. That isn’t to say of course that there couldn’t be, in the future.

Q: So when we die, you believe we just stop?

A: It’s not so much a belief as a conclusion based on the evidence.

Q: But how can the Self just go nowhere upon death? How can it just cease?

A: Because the body ceases, the body that the “Self” is a function of. What we call Self-Awareness is merely a consequence of the brain’s Modelling Process. Higher mammalian brains have evolved the ability to accurately model the outside world – a kind of internal simulation if you will – in order to better interact with that outside world. This internal “virtual world” is vital to the hominid brain because it enables us to map our way round the structure of our social group. Everyone at some stage has sat there, prior to an important conversation (a job interview, meeting a prospective partner), running different permutations of that conversation through their head. That’s a good example of the Modelling process in action. It enables us to plan our social interaction ahead of time, but it also enables us to avoid potential physical hazards, plan future events, map out our whole future. In order to do this, our brain constructs a detailed simulation of the world around us, including all the people in it (or at least all the ones we are likely to meet). Hence your brain contains simulations of your home, workplace, husband, wife, children, boss, and the work colleague you fancy. But in order to work correctly, there must exist a simulation of you. The more accurately you know the person, or place, the more accurate your simulation will be. Sometimes of course our simulations are somewhat inaccurate - you’re convinced your colleague fancies you. On the contrary, they think you’re an ugly old trout…but then that’s a problem with the accuracy of their simulation of you - but generally speaking the most detailed simulation is that of you. It contains after all, a detailed model of your body (which you of course know intimately well), plus a very accurate model of your mind. So in any given situation you can make a fairly accurate guess of how you are going to react to that situation. This simulation of you is in fact so accurate that it thinks it is alive, and that is your Self.

Q: You seem to be saying that the self only exists as a product of the human brain. Couldn’t this somehow survive death?

A: Since the Self is a product of the brain, when the brain ceases to function, the Self will cease to exist. Once deprived of oxygen and nutrients, by the cessation of the heart, the cells of the brain will die. Eventually the flesh that makes up the brain itself would succumb to decomposition, leaving nothing but an empty skull. It is difficult to see how the mind could survive that.

Q: Isn’t the mind composed of a series of electrical impulses? If so, perhaps these could be recorded in some way.

A: The brain is composed of cellular material, and cells depend upon chemical processes to do their work. Some of these processes generate and use electricity, but primarily it’s chemistry that does the work. Nerve impulses travel across synaptic gaps either by chemical or electric means, depending on where the synapses are located. It would not be enough to simply “record” the electrical impulses of the brain, since you would only get the electrical part, not the chemical one. An audio recording of someone’s voice is just that – a recording. It isn’t a copy of that person’s vocal chords. A recording of a mind would have to be done onto some kind of hybrid material that allowed duplication of both chemical and electronic impulses; in short, another brain.

Q: You say you do not believe in God. Are any members of your family religious?

A: My mother goes to church as regularly as she can, but I suspect that is more for the community than the actual religious experience. No other immediate members of my family are religious.

Q: If a member of your family was religious, would you respect that?

A: Would I respect them, or their religion? What exactly are you asking here? We often hear of people in the public eye claiming that although they are not religious themselves, they do “have enormous respect for people who have religious faith”. Well, that appears to be an admirable sentiment, but let’s deconstruct it a little. There are several million people on this planet who have strong religious faith, but should they automatically deserve our respect? If they punish, imprison, or murder other people in the name of their faith, then I personally would say the answer is no. In fact I would say that anything done in the name of religion that restricts anyone’s freedom of thought and deed is questionable. If there is any restrictions that need to be placed on an individual’s freedom, that is the purview of a government, not a religion.

Q: Well would you respect the wishes of someone to be a Christian, for example?

A: Would I respect their wishes? Certainly. I would respect anyone’s right to wish for anything. I would not particularly respect the religion itself however. Although I believe anyone has the right to think anything they want, to believe anything they want, that does not mean I agree with what they believe.

Q: But isn’t that the same thing?

A: No, of course not. Let me give you an example - someone who believes that the British Monarchy should be scrapped. I don’t believe he/she should be prevented from thinking that. I believe in personal freedom of anyone to think and believe what they want. However, I don’t agree that the British Monarchy should be scrapped. Therefore I respect this person’s wish to believe what they believe, but I don’t respect the belief itself. Any more than I respect the belief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the God of the Old and New Testament. My youngest child believes in Santa Claus, and I respect the fact that she does. I certainly don’t believe in Santa myself though. At the end of the day, it’s really down to a problem with the word “respect”. We basically don’t really know what it means.

Q: So what do you think of people who believe in a religion?

A: I think they’re misguided.

Q: Do you think they shouldn’t follow a religion?

A: There’s a difference between a belief and a religion, though not as much of a difference as you might imagine. Sometimes unpleasant things are done in the name of belief, and in the name of religion. A belief is generally held by one person (such as the belief held by someone that he should be allowed to have sex with 10-year old children). A religion however is a legitimised belief that is allowed to be taught to other people as fact, and if that religion allows its followers to perform questionable acts, suddenly you’ve got an army on your hands. If I told you that I had deep-held beliefs that I should be allowed to behead people who offend me in some way, I’m sure you would be concerned…and yet there are millions of people in other countries who do believe just this.

Q: So you’re not particularly open-minded about other religions or beliefs then?

A: No. Not at all. How could one be? If we’re talking about an opinion, like “is butter better than margarine”, then of course one could be open to debate about the matter, since we’re talking about a subjective value judgement. But when I have already stated I do not believe in God – or perhaps that should be “a God” – how could I be open-minded about a religion that does profess a belief in God? If I do not believe something, I can hardly be open-minded about people who do believe that same something.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Eliminate the Ageing Gene

Some families tend to be longer lived than others.

So if you want to ensure that this long-livedness transfers into as much of the future population as possible, you have to maximise the incidence of descendents of long-lived people in the general population.

You could do this by giving those people fertility drugs, to ensure they have lots of offspring.

Or you could do it by killing the offspring of short-lived people, to eliminate their “ageing” genes from the gene pool.

Isn’t it funny how evolution lends itself naturally to genocide, time and time again.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

The Krrlll were an ancient race...

As old as the earliest of the Seyfert galaxies, the Krrlll, composed as they were of pre-Nova light elements, had long ago abandoned MetaLight star travel in favour of Transdimensional Warpage. During one of their many journeys, oscillating between times past and times future, the Krrlll happened upon Man, and the shock almost destroyed them.

Mankind had discovered the Probably Drive and was soon exploding out of the Solar System at many times the Speed of Life. Scouring the starlanes for something to conquer, something to kill, and armed with the most fearsome weapon ever invented - the Omniplasmicomegatron - the Terran fleet scythed its way through star systems, reducing whole planets to rubble.
Mankind appeared unstoppable, until that fateful day when the Star Cruiser “Moon of Orion” warped into RealSpace in orbit around Gamma Ceti IX.

Gamma Ceti IX, in the Procrastian Quadrant, from time immemorial the Thirteenth of the Prohibited Worlds, was the home of the Whhaaarrrrnnnn.

A truly ancient race, the Whhaaarrrrnnnn had existed from before the dawn of recorded history, and had long ago discarded corporeal form, mutating into life-forms of pure energy. Their physical forms but a race memory, the Whhaaarrrrnnnn retained but one legacy of their animal past - the lust for blood. Though tied to their world by bonds forged beyond space and time, the Whhaaarrrrnnnn feared no race...other than one - the Quufffh!

Now, the Quufffh were REALLY old...

Good God. A Blog.

Why? Why not. The world and his wife are blogging. Why should I be any different? I have a document called "Night Thoughts". I use it for jotting down any ideas I have, mainly at night. Sometimes I speak them into a small hand-held mp3 player when I'm on the train station in the mornings. A bit like writing your dreams down in the morning, or taping a late-night session when you're stoned with your mates (we did that once, and played it back the next day. God it was drivel.)

Sometimes when I read back what I've written I wonder just what was I thinking of? Most times though, I stand by what I've said. It may not be relevant, correct, or even make sense, but it's a snapshot of my state of mind at the time and as such I guess it has a place in posterity, if only to tell me what an arse I've been.

Currently coming down having watched Brokeback Mountain on DVD. God what a depressing film.