Tuesday, 24 June 2008


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


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


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.