Saturday, February 28, 2009

AntiChrist or Hitler?

The Daily Show - February 24, 2009 - Clip 2 of 4
(click around to find that date and that clip if the link isn't direct)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Is there a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science? - Jerry Coyne & Others

Recently, Jerry Coyne wrote an exellent piece examining whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between science and religion. Although broad ranging, his main focus was about evolutionary theory as he was reviewing two books (one by Karl W. Giberson and one by Kenneth R. Miller) as part of his project.
Subsequently, a Reality Club on the Edge responded to issue. I highly recommend Coyne's piece and the interesting (range of) comments by the authors of the books Coyne reviewed as well as Lawrence Krauss, Howard Gardner, Lisa Randall, Patrick Bateson, Daniel Everett, Daniel C. Dennett, Lee Smolin, Emanuel Derman, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Michael Shermer.
This is just great stuff.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jonathan Haidt - Morality and Politics

Jonathan Haidt is a (social/moral) psychologist at the University of Virginia and I was very much impressed by his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt has long been studying how moral decision are made, and a little more recently has been exploring how these feelings and judgements influence politics.
I highly recommend checking out the book and some of the links below.

Advice to Obama
NYTimes review of Haidt's ideas
Scholarly paper that examines the source of moral judgements.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era by Vernor Vinge

I am currently reading the (so far) excellent book Wired for War and a Vernor Vinge's 1993 essay about technological developments changing the world was mentioned as a seminal work. I decided to read it and I can see why it had a large impact. You can find the (relatively short) article here.
I've decided to cut and paste various parts below with minimal commentary indicated by dashes, but you might as well just read the whole thing.

Vinge's Thesis: "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

This can happen in four main ways:
"There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):
  1. There may be developed computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
  2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  4. Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect."

-I believe that the order of events will be 3, 4 and then 1. I'm not sure about 2, but probably most likely to occur between 4 and 1. I feel relatively confident because one could argue that 3 and 4 are going to happen soon if they haven't already.

Vinge quotes Good:
"Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. "

"We will see automation replacing higher and higher level jobs."
- I believe this is a trend that has been happening for quite some time, mainly with the industrial revolution. Additionally, there is a lot of 'human automation' in China and India that is doing the lower level work (i.e., manufacturing and basic office processes) and even here they are aided by machines at almost every step.

Vinge wisely acknowledges that "that we might never see a Singularity. Instead, in the early '00s we would find our hardware performance curves beginning to level off -- this because of our inability to automate the design work needed to support further hardware improvements. We'd end up with some very powerful hardware, but without the ability to push it further. Commercial digital signal processing might be awesome, giving an analog appearance even to digital operations, but nothing would ever "wake up" and there would never be the intellectual runaway which is the essence of the Singularity. It would likely be seen as a golden age ... and it would also be an end of progress."
- I especially liked this part because it made a falsifiable prediction. It is still the '00s and our hardware performance has not leveled off, but has continued to increase at the same exponential rate. Further, he does observe that if the technology leveled off, it would be the end of (technological) progress. Perhaps that is what our world needs so we will have a chance to adapt to what we already have, but that is entirely unrealistic.

"Eric Drexler has provided spectacular insights about how far technical improvement may go. He agrees that superhuman intelligences will be available in the near future -- and that such entities pose a threat to the human status quo. But Drexler argues that we can confine such transhuman devices so that their results can be examined and used safely. This is I. J. Good's ultraintelligent machine, with a dose of caution. I argue that confinement is intrinsically impractical."

What about programming in rules to mitigate the power and freedom of these machines?
“I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (and so human competition would favor the development of the those more dangerous models).”
-I tend to agree that at least some people somewhere will try to build superintelligent machines even if there are laws against. Additionally, the notion of confinement or control is a fascinating one because it seems like it would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. If it is impossible, what then?

“The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility.”
-It is important that this is acknowledged as a possibility as one can get carried away with utopic dreams.

"(I. J. Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good [12] proposed a "Meta-Golden Rule", which might be paraphrased as "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors." It's a wonderful, paradoxical idea (and most of my friends don't believe it) since the game-theoretic payoff is so hard to articulate. Yet if we were able to follow it, in some sense that might say something about the plausibility of such kindness in this universe.)"
- If that rule was followed, wouldn't that be an interesting world! I liked his wording of "the game-theoretic payoff is so hard to articulate."

"And it's very likely that IA [Intelligence Amplification] is a much easier road to the achievement of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest development problems have already been solved. Building up from within ourselves ought to be easier than figuring out first what we really are and then building machines that are all of that."
- This makes obvious sense to me.

"Allow human/computer teams at chess tournaments."
- I think this is a good prescription/recommendation. Interestingly, it had already happened over a decade ago (but that is still five years after Vinge's proposal).

"The power and influence of even the present-day Internet is vastly underestimated."
-One could duh to this, but I don't think that is fair. My own personal recollection is that I thought the Net was going to be big, then it really wasn't because there was not much on there and little to do. Then just several years later... well, I'm writing this blog aren't I? (A blog I started 5 years ago.)

"One of my informal reviewers pointed out that IA for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite. We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light. Much of that deadliness may not be necessary in today's world, one where losers take on the winners' tricks and are coopted into the winners' enterprises. A creature that was built de novo might possibly be a much more benign entity than one with a kernel based on fang and talon. And even the egalitarian view of an Internet that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a nightmare."
-I think he could spend more time here discussing how we might be in a world where the elite gain substantially more intelligence and power, so that we might actually have Gods on Earth among the normals, with abilities to dominate and subjegate.

"What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of a selfawareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration?"
-What a self will be is one of the most interesting things to think about within the notion of a singularity.

"From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams: a time unending, where we can truly know one another and understand the deepest mysteries. From another angle, it's a… worst- case scenario."
-It is always wise to keep in mind that things can go to a variety of extremes (but just as often seem to end up somewhere in the middle).

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Microsoft asks laid-off workers for cash back

Read the article, but the worth here are the quite amusing comments.

Althought this one was quite astute:
Markham Mayhem from Markham, Canada writes: Crimson the Red hits the nail on the head. Microsoft's profits dropped from 5.2 Billion (yes that is billion) per quarter to 4.7 billion per quarter. OMG, the sky is falling. Nevermind that they're still on pace to make almost $20 Billion USD profit this year. Profit! Not Revenue. Profit. To lay off 5,000 employees under that condition is pure nonsense and if you think about it, this type of corporate behaviour actually produces a negative feedback into the economy and hastens the decline.It is like a company that foresees an economic downturn, so lays people off. But the very act that they engaged in actually precipitates the economic downturn. I do understand that companies that are barely surviving need to reduce workforce. But MS is hardly in this category. Finally, do the math on this. MS lays off 5000 people. If you figure they make $100k/year, that comes out to a saving of $500MM/year. Compare that to corporate profits of $20B/year. That is 2.5%. In accounting terms, anything less than 5% is considered not material. In this case, the layoffs is not material.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines by Janna Levin

I enjoyed this book because it was an interesting exploration into the partly imagined personalities and lives of Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel – two of the most important intellectuals of the past century. A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines was a work of historical fiction yet it appears to be incredibly well-researched. There were many times where I appreciated the writing and certain sentences, but it was really about the content: logic, math, philosophy, faith vs. science, free will vs. determinism, mechanization of thought, intellectuality, and limitations of knowledge and the power of computers.
Consequently, I recommend this work to those who would enjoy such content and but not to those seeking more than satisfactory prose.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Darren accidentally gets his hair cut at a 'massage' parlour?

Really, the title says it all, but for those interested in the details, read on!

I’ve been meaning to get my hair cut for the past week or two, but I haven’t really had the time. I could have gone to a place closer to where I work and live, but there is a good place further south and east. My friend Xander recommended the guy and though it was a bit of a walk, it was worth it. This is not because he was a great barber (he seemed good enough), but because he was such an odd amusing person. He would speak with a gruff bravado and make odd comments depending on what you said. Example: He has lots of currency on his walls from various places. So I said something like must be a lot of money all added up. He replied “I’m a lotta money.” He wouldn’t say this with a smile or utmost seriousness, but just say it. I really wish I could attach an audio clip of what he sounds like because it really makes the scene. It was hard not to laugh (which I did later). The other thing that was very amusing is that when I gave him a tip after he cut my hair, he said “You’re a good man” and gave me the tip back! Whaaa? So, amusing but odd haircut and some barber that isn’t after your money – sounds good to me.

With that background out of the way, I set out to see this man (hoping he was open on Sundays because I couldn’t remember if it was Sat or Sun when I got it cut last time) and then my plan was to get some groceries on the way back. After the trek there I discovered he was not open. Boo urns! It wasn’t an entire loss because I got some exercise and I listened to several podcasts (mainly The Current about Carter & the Middle East, Ignatief and Al-Jazeera English seeking Canadian broadcasting). I hoped all wasn’t lost so I set out up Bank (on my way to Hartman’s – the grocery store) in search of a place to get a haircut.
No luck. Places were non-existent or closed. I chose to give it another block or two and walked past the grocery store in a last-ditch effort to find a place. (Odd how we make little deals with ourselves, eh?) Anyway, I thought I saw a place and crossed the street. Annnnnd closed. Bah!

Well, I guess that was that then. I started to walk to the grocery store. Then, about 3 stores down, there was another place that was obviously a hair salon. Looked a little fancy and more oriented towards women, but after seeing a sign that said “haircut and shampoo - $15” I thought I’d try it. More than I like to pay because I really don’t require much but my options were limited. Inside there were four people, two women, two men, all Asian (which I will later come to believe are Chinese because of my rudimentary understanding of Chinese and Japanese). So, I walk in and say how much is a haircut? One woman points me to a wall, almost around a corner. I walk towards that direction tentatively, thinking here is perhaps someone else who does men’s hair in a connected shop. It turns out she is pointing to a coat rack. I then clarified the price was $15 because you never know. Took off my coat, put away iPod, and followed a different woman to the back to have my hair washed. At this point, because the whole place looked like a hair salon, I didn’t think anything was amiss. It did seem odd that there were two guys just sitting around, but I thought business might be slow or perhaps it was family. So, this woman (girl?) who is wearing tight clothes that don’t cover her waist begins the process of washing my hair. Before the water starts I say, “I don’t really need a hair wash, but if you want to rinse it so you can cut it that’s fine” because perhaps that is easier for her. She seemed to not quite understand, sort of attempted to clarify, so I said that I just washed it a few hours ago. Anyway, it was indicated we should do it regardless, so we did. Now, while lying back looking up, I couldn’t help but notice the hair in her armpit. I only mention this because blah blah cultural conditioning blah blah that is unappealing and it seemed odd, just because it is so rare and it might come into play later. Once the hair was washed I sat in the chair and said, “Number 2 on the back and sides and short on the top” which is what I usually have done. She seemed a little confused and looked through a drawer of different sized attachments for the shaver. The fact she looked at the number on each one did not inspire me with confidence. She went to look for a number 2 in other drawers, but didn’t seem to find one, so just seemed to pick an arbitrary size. Now, this seemed odd, but as it was larger than a 2, I’m guessing, I thought perhaps she had some idea of how to achieve the desired length.

Somewhere around this point, the other woman casually asks me if I would like a massage from my current hair dresser after the hair cut. I say, “No, thanks” and then begin to think about the whole situation differently. During this pondering, the girl is doing an amusingly bad job on my hair. I say amusing because she is not lopping off any of it, rather she is going very slowly and using a comb in addition to the shaver, so the issue is that things aren’t short enough. So, I started to see the guys who were in the ‘establishment’ as owners, ‘investors,’ or enforcers. It really did start to seem like some bad 80s movie. But, considering the whole place really seemed like a hair salon, I thought that if it was a massage parlour, perhaps they also cut hair and it wasn’t just a front. If that was true, I could still get a haircut and be out of there. Yet, she didn’t seem to know what she was doing at all. I said it needs to be shorter, and she said she knows, so I thought perhaps she is doing it in stages. But it her technique was so slow. I actually do not have a known memory (save today) of someone not knowing how to cut hair, cut my hair.

During this process, I thought about what I should do. Should I stop her, just get up and leave? Not my style, but perhaps warranted here. Would they ask me to pay? Should I demand someone else cut my hair? The problem is that she had already started, so if I just left my hair would look odd with only half it (poorly) cut. Then again, staying longer might risk even worse hair. I hoped that the situation would resolve itself in my best interests, so I chose to stay (it was interesting if nothing else). Also, would they expect a tip? Why do I even concern myself with such things, no tip! But... should I tip...? I even thought that perhaps the girl would get in trouble as I have no idea what the situation was here. And yes, I had the thought that “If this is a massage parlour, why wouldn’t she shave her armpits? Are other guys into that?”

Moving on.... the scissors then came out. But, from all my past experience, the shaving part wasn’t finished. Here I was a bit concerned because the potential for bad hair seemed to increase. Now, she did the thing where you take hair in-between you fingers and cut the tip, but it was done slowly, without much confidence and it seemed to be done from a variety of angles indicating there wasn’t really a plan but to make the hair shorter.
She could see my concern or confusion on my face (which I probably mostly masked), and I also commented that it still wasn’t short enough. Soon after she said, “You don’t think I’m really a hair dresser?” What to say? For the past while (as this was slow going) it really did seem like an odd game was being played. The way the other guys in the store looked at me, I wondered if they were thinking “Is some guy actually getting his hair cut? Why doesn’t he just go for the massage?” Hard to say because I can’t read minds, but it did seem odd. Like she is pretending to be able to cut my hair and I’m pretending to not be too annoyed about the whole thing (dang Canadianess). Anyway, my reply was something like “well, you seemed to have trouble finding the 2 and you don’t seem entirely sure about what you are doing.” And soon after, “Well... are you?” To which she never replied, yet the atmosphere seemed congenial. ODD!
My current ‘hair dresser’ soon said that the other woman would fix my hair later. In my head: Later? What the hell does that mean?! I should have already been done by now. Further, what do you plan to do in the interim? Practice like on a Chiapet or some hair dresser Barbie?” I actually said, “What do you mean later?”

Well, shortly thereafter, Lynn came by (the other woman), some (assumed) Chinese words were exchanged and she just took over, with the original one watching. She obviously knew way more than the first one, but I wasn’t sure how much. She shaved the back and sides like she was supposed to and then did the scissor trim thing like one is supposed to, but the whole time I was doubtful about the entire situation.
I remember at one point I was commenting about how I wanted to make sure she shaved my neck and she said she has been doing this for 25 years and she wasn’t done. All righty! Of course, minutes later when she was using a blow dryer, ostensibly to blow hair off my head and face, but actually blowing it down my shirt, I did question the supposedly authority and ability that might come with so many years of experience.
Detailed memories are hazy, but I know the haircut finished and then she asked again if I wanted a massage, to which I again declined (now I clear images of a little room with a massage table I saw on the way to get my hair washed), she said maybe next time then with a big smile. I said, “Yeah, maybe” thinking “Yeah, how about Never!” O_o

I put on my coat, made sure they didn’t steal my iPod (who knows at this point) and I paid. I didn’t tip, which was easier because Lynn was on the phone and some guy was handling the transaction (I know, you’re all impressed by ability to take a stand). I got the hell out of there and as soon as I left looked back to look at the outside of this place and exactly what it looked like. Well, it looks like a hair salon. And her card says they do esthetics, nail care, colouring, weddings... etc. I couldn’t help but bust out laughing once I was out of sight and ear shot.
How odd! How incredibly odd!

So, let’s think about this, it is possible it was just a normal massage parlour, but it really doesn’t seem like it. It is possible they were just making a joke or having a prank, but that doesn’t seem right either. They guys who just sat around, or walked back and forth, didn’t seem like the type to hang out in a hair salon on a Sunday. Perhaps they have ‘specials’ on Sunday to which I was unaware?
I forgot to mention that at one point while the ‘untrained’ (for lack of a better word) woman cut my hair Lynn went to the station beside us and fixed her hair and make-up and lip gloss. I haven’t seen this before. Additionally, for guys in a hair salon, they didn’t seem too fashionable.

Oh... huh... I just looked at the card Lynn gave me and, if one goes by their stated hours, they aren’t even open on Sundays. Could I have been right?! Well, anyway, I leave it up to you to decide just what exactly was intended when I was offered the various massages.


Climate Wars - CBC Ideas

CBC Best of Ideas has the 3-part series they did on Dyer's book Climate Wars (scroll down). I think the book is very important and that you should listen to this series. (Also available on iTunes under CBC Best of Ideas).

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mr. Obama goes to Ottawa

Did you feel it? Change was in the air today!
Barack Obama came to Ottawa to visit with the Prime Minister and various others. I had heard that there might be a gathering of people outside so I went to observe us apes doing what we do; I was much rewarded for my minimal efforts. (I also heard that Obama’s Aura of Hope radiates out spherically between 10 and 500 metres depending on how inspired he is, and thus I might have been able to experience the glow of change and optimism if I got close enough.)
  • The jubilant black man holding the cover page of the National Post that said “History” with Obama’s picture. A photographer took a shot of him posing with a big smile and they were both happy.
  • Numerous photographers, amateur and professional, walked around, snapping here and there, often at seemingly nothing of import.
  • Various “business” people selling Obama junk off the ground (mini-posters, cds and other superfluous things).
  • A person dressed up in a white furry animal costume with a sign that said “Hug me, don’t club me.” After reading that I obviously thought it was a seal costume; and I noticed that the costumed person and helper were from PETA. I thought about going over and asking, “How do you even know that baby seals suffer?” but I didn’t need the confrontation. Later though, when the Seal person was leaving just ahead of me, they had to be helped to cross the road because the large feet had little traction. I found it very amusing.
  • A woman holding a sign that said “I regret my abortion” with a man holding a sign saying something like “I lost out on fatherhood.” While I tried to listen in a little on someone else talking to them, I thought I didn’t need that hassle either. I couldn’t help but wonder what their point was: People shouldn’t have free choice about abortion? People should but they, personally, were misled and therefore greater caution should be urged? Abortion should be outlawed?
    I guess I should have asked. Just now, while writing this, I got a darkly amusing visual of imagining another woman holding a sign saying “I regret not getting an abortion.” Worse still, what if she brought her child with her? Annnnnnnnyway…
  • Another group holding up a large banner indicating that they want to use grassroots organizations and methods to combat the economic problems. I noticed the bottom of the banner indicated the promoters were an interfaith prayer group; I hope they plan to do more than pray for economic recovery.
  • Yet another group holding up a sign stating that Canadian companies are responsible for various misdeeds in African countries. I would have taken a pamphlet but there were only two guys holding the sign – perhaps not the most effective way to disseminate information on a topic.
  • Finally, still another banner about “Harper’s Lies” and climate change.

In conclusion, Obama visits and people are there to profit off his image, gain attention to seal clubbing, economic collapse, Canadian companies hurting Africa, something about abortion, climate change and seal clubbing. Add some helicopters on patrol and you have an interesting event.

Planet Finance Collides with Reality

The recent Vanity Fair had a good article by Niall Ferguson about how the financial mess came to be.
Read on VF's page or on Ferguson's page.

A Skeptical Look at Popper, and then Gardner

The content of post will be worthwhile to those who are interested in the philosophy of science and/or how we can know anything.

The prolific Martin Gardner did a (dismissive) examination of Karl Popper in 2001. The essay was included in a book in 2003 and two critiques of that examination soon followed. Both are relatively sophisticated, but each is important in its own way.
Critique by Ross
Critique by Lester

Given that most of this stuff deals with epistemology, it might be useful to read this first.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Kinds of Minds by Daniel C. Dennett

A useful introduction to the work of Dennett as it covers the notion of looking at phenomena from different perspectives and how we could go from simple stimulus-response organisms up to astoundingly complicated things like us who have their stimuli and responses highly(!) interrelated with competing processes and feedback mechanisms. More simply, it is about the modelling of minds using evolution.
The book might be unsatisfying to some because it does not provide easy answers, but Dennett usually tries to achieve the more modest goal of challenging you think of what you really mean when you ask a certain question or draw a certain conclusion. Kinds of Minds is no different in this way or his use of analogies and thought experiments to pump your intuitions in different directions.
I did like his idea of the Tower of Generate and Test which describes ascending levels of abilities of different types of organisms. I found a detailed description in a book review by T. E. Dickins and K. Frankish that I’ll past below:
The Tower consists of four floors, each of which represents a more efficient way of solving day-to-day survival problems. Each progressive solution is a ‘better move’ than the one before. Thus, the ground floor is inhabited by Darwinian creatures that are blindly generated by natural selection and possess different hardwired phenotypes. Their responses to survival problems are determined by their genetic inheritance and are quite inflexible.
The second floor is inhabited by Skinnerian creatures. These can vary their
phenotypic response to the environmental contingencies they encounter. Skinnerian creatures also possess hardwired reinforcement mechanisms that bias them to make what Dennett terms ‘Smart Moves’. A Skinnerian creature will vary its response to stimuli until something good comes of it, whereupon it will become conditioned to produce the same response again should similar stimuli be encountered. Such conditioning is possible, of course, only if the initial response is not fatal.
Popperian creatures, who inhabit the third floor, run less risk of making fatal first moves. These creatures have an inner environment – a mental representation of the external world – and can run internal simulations of various courses of action. In this way, they can calculate the likely effects of candidate actions and eliminate the ones likely to have undesirable consequences – thus ‘permitting their hypotheses to die in their stead’ as Karl Popper puts it.
Popperian creatures are much smarter than their Skinnerian cousins. However, their ability to form and test hypotheses is still limited by their genetic endowment. Their representational abilities, in particular, may remain relatively encapsulated, so that information from one domain is not routinely made available for the solution of problems occurring in others. Gregorian creatures, who live on the next floor, are smarter yet. They supplement their innate problem-solving abilities with mind tools acquired from their peers. They have learned Richard Gregory’s lesson that tools not only display intelligence, but create it too. A well-designed tool meshes with our native abilities and extends them in new and far-reaching ways. (Think, for example, of how a pair of scissors extends our ability to manipulate and shape artefacts.) The mind tools which Gregorian creatures possess are culturally transmitted tricks, shortcuts, and strategies which enable them to arrive more swiftly at Smart Moves for solving problems. The most powerful of these mind tools, Dennett suggests, are words.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Afghan civilian deaths a record high in 2008

AP story discusses a UN finding.
To summarize, of the 2118 Afghan civilians that were killed in armed conflict in 2008, those who hate freedom killed 55% of them while those who love freedom killed only 39% of them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


A great movie - it was amusing, informative and concerning.
Maher wisely pushes the notion of doubt instead of certainty and raises the important issue of how policy might be influenced by untenable beliefs. Unfortunately, the film became alarmist at the end and glossed over many important issues (i.e. politics, marginalization/desperation, history, basic psychology) that are likely responsible for much of the
indignation displayed by supposed religious zealots. Further, as many people pick and choose and even those who state they are firmly religious do not often use it as a detailed guide to daily activities; it could be fallacious to wholly attribute their actions to their declared religious belief.

Concisely, thank God most people aren’t really religious.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Not What, But Where, Is Your “Self”?

An interesting neurological piece for curious selfs.
(Personal highlight: “Come on, you little monkey, don’t let us down. Come on, Monkey.”)

The Reality Check - Episode 26

The new show has been uploaded; in honour of Darwin's birthday the whole show was devoted to exploring different aspects of evolution. Have a listen here.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday Darwin!

It is the 200th anniversary of the day Darwin was born and 2008 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection - a book that significantly changed the world.
Interesting - Amusing 1 - Amusing(?) 2 - Classic

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Darren & Dennett

Summary: I had the privilege of meeting my intellectual idol, Daniel C. Dennett, on Monday, February 9th, 2008. I listened to two in-person lectures, asked several questions, got five books signed and took several pictures. Dennett is a nice man and it was a fantastic day. The story below is mainly for me to record the event and will likely only be of interest for those seeking much greater details (or insight into my quirky inner workings).

Brief Background: Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University that has explored the topics of consciousness, intentionality, evolution, and free will for decades (and more recently religion and morality). His work has had a huge impact upon my thinking. It began in my late teens when I picked up his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and I have been a fan ever since. I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of it when I read it the first time, nor did I make it through Consciousness Explained on the first attempt. His work is challenging, especially because I don’t have a formal background in philosophy of mind, but it is at the level where I am usually rewarded for my efforts instead of just frustrated.
It is as if Dennett has my general worldview (i.e., materialism or naturalism), is more insightful and has spent much more time supporting, defending and exploring such a world view, and its implications. One of his primary projects is to reconcile our common sense of self with that of the findings of science. I sometimes see him as an intellectual linebacker that is clearing the field so I can stroll down at my own pace and make headway towards the goal. His writings and arguments are brilliant, creative, strikingly broad and highly reasoned.
It is accurate to say that he is my intellectual idol and that many of the ideas I have can be attributed to his writings. Upon greater exploration, I think I would learn that while many of my ideas came from Dennett’s writings, he got many of those ideas from thinkers in his formal education (Wittgenstein, Quine, Ryle) as well as many contemporaries (too many to list). Consequently, it is likely true that if I read more of Dennett’s influences, I might be less impressed by him (but still impressed nonetheless). I don’t think he would have a problem with that, as he realizes the nature of knowledge-building and how one takes ideas available, reformulate and extends or chips away like a sculptor to offer a new perspective. Still, to write intelligently, not just competently, on one complicated subject is impressive; to be able to do it with several subjects is all the more remarkable.
My good friend Xander, who I met in the interview process to teach English in Japan and who invited me to join The Reality Check - a podcast about critical thinking put on by the Ottawa Skeptics Society - told me in late summer 2008 that Dennett was likely coming to Carleton in February. On some level one could say I have been preparing for this talk the past several years, but I purposely started to align my efforts in the fall: I re-read his book Consciousness Explained with friends in the summer and then re-read his excellent book about free will, Elbow Room, in October and November; I listened to little podcasts about Wittgenstein and other philosophers and learned about some of his influences; I read his brief bio (part one online, the second while in Chapters); I read a book about Dennett, analyzing his various philosophies and arguments and how they might come together; I finished Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and other books on evolution to greater understand that aspect of his work (and for other good reasons); I re-read parts of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and the book Kinds of Minds; and I thought of what I might want to say to him or ask him.

D-Day (yes, I’ll make that a pun)
Organized books to be signed, camera, food, and pills and left the apt soon after 11:00am after calling Xander to say I was on my way and that we’ll meet at the bus stop near him at around 11:15. (My health issues were not a constant problem but they were a frequent concern throughout the day, so I’ll just mention that now instead of repeatedly in this post.) It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and the temperature a very enjoyable 1 or 2 degrees Celsius. I was in a great mood as I had been looking forward to this event for months; I would get excited and then remind myself that he is human and think about what I was really expecting or seeking (to attempt mitigation of potential disappointment). I was hoping to catch the 85 bus but I wasn’t sure if it would come so I decided to walk it to make sure I got there on time. I kept looking over my shoulder, but nary did a bus appear.
About two minutes after I arrived at the bus stop where I was to meet Xander, the 85 arrived at that stop. Of course, this was annoying as I could have just taken the bus then, but given my state of knowledge 15 minutes before that it was still most reasonable to walk (but it is still annoying :P). Now, since Xander hadn’t arrived yet, there wasn’t a problem. But, if the bus was the number 4, the one we need to get to Carleton to see Dennett, it would have been irritating because I was tired from walking quickly to get there on time. Soon after the 85 departed, I saw Xander running towards me from a distance, I indicated he needn’t rush… but then the 4 was on its way so I then indicated he should speed up. The timing worked out almost perfectly, and we got a ride to Carleton (which I didn’t think we would) and there was no fare; so far so good. Xander and I talked about Dennett, and I joked about abducting him or that while I planned to ask several questions, perhaps a hug would be a bit much.
Xander and I conversed while we went to the building and room where an in-house Dennett talk was to be held for philosophy and cog-sci students and faculty. It was on the 22nd floor and the elevators weren’t moving so quickly, so just getting there took awhile. We organized chairs and tables and I wrote a Dennettism on the whiteboard: Of course we have a soul; it’s just made of many tiny robots. I lay on a table while others arrived and a brief discussion about proto-consciousness/pan-psychism occurred (what a silly idea). More and more started filling in, I had left to go to the bathroom and when I came back, just before 1:00pm, Dennett was there and people were setting up his laptop. (Amusingly, I’m smiling while I write this.) It was just so cool to have him so physically close. I have seen him in videos and pictures, but there he was, sitting there like, well, himself!
Andy Brook, a long-time friend of Dennett’s, did a brief introduction and then Dennett took the podium. He presented a preliminary, explorative talk about resistance to the idea of mind as computer; examining hardware and software analogies to mental activity, as well as pushing the concept of a competitive mind. By ‘competitive mind’ he meant that various parts and sub-routines compete in the brain to produce what it does (i.e., you, your thoughts, beliefs, actions…etc) and how this could explain many of the disconnects and conflicts people feel. Dennett looked like I thought he would (he’s a big man) and it was fascinating to see him speak in the manner and cadence which I expected and to use mannerisms that I’ve seen before… but 10 feet away.
The talk was interesting because it was Dennett speaking in-person, but the content really did seem like a natural extension of his views of many distributed systems competing with each other for actualization (not his word, but I lack a better one at the moment). Dennett discussed a recent paper by Fitch called “Nano-intentionality” in which Dennett said Fitch stated that neurons were really agents. Further, Fitch stated that Dennett had previously indicated that this wasn’t the case. This part was amusing because Dennett said he loved and hated the paper; loved it because the paper was important work that he agreed with, but hated it because now he has to go and do the boring work of pointing exactly where he feels he was misinterpreted.
Other aspects of the lecture were a little history of computational modelling, some comments about the mind as software, contrast of typos and thinkos (semantic errors), analogy of capitalism and socialism, and “mundify the epygastricts” - where he had us repeat the phrase and illustrated how comparatively easy that task was to repeating a string of nonsense sounds – it was very funny (“You don’t even know if you got it right”). Additionally, Dennett defended memes by talking about words – “well, what is a word made out of?” (his answer being information) and argued that we are meme-infested beings that have linguistic virtual machines which allow us to acquire new words and ideas (he used the analogy of a Java Virtual Machine and Java applets). As I was in the second row, there were times where he looked right at me and I couldn’t help but think “It’s like Dennett is talking to me.” I also took a photo or two and some brief video.
After he concluded his talk, there was the opportunity for questions where those who would like to ask one are put on a list and then a moderator indicates when it is your turn. I knew I wanted to ask a question, but I wasn’t sure which one, so I hesitated, but once 3-4 questioners were listed in a short period I put up my hand and decided to think of one while the Q&A occurred. My friend Xander asked the first question about the parallel Dennett drew between capitalism and socialism and competitive process versus cooperative processes in the brain, it was something about whether non-competitive structures would limit the types of brains/minds that could occur (as perhaps socialism limits the types of government you can have).
I cannot recall the next questions as I was probably thinking of how I would ask mine. As opposed to the many questions I had planned ahead of time, I thought I should ask something germane to the talk, so I took the opportunity to clarify a position I believe Dennett held. I said something like, “My question is about neurons as agents. In your talk you mentioned that the author of the nano-intentionality paper said that neurons were really agents. If your work has taught me anything it is to be cautious when encountering the word real or really [I deliberated on this and almost (and probably should have) said, “Your work indicates one should be cautious…”]. I believe you see agenthood as best ascribed (I didn’t use this phrase) when greater predictability can be gained, so if some aspects of neuronal function can only be described as agents to yield useful results, then so be it, and if it turns out the same is true of sub-neuronal components you would think it is fine to call them agents also, and so on and so on… ?
Dennett replied basically saying that is exactly right. Fitch chose the eukaryotic cell as the smallest level of worthy of agenthood, but if the stance is useful in even smaller levels, then that would be appropriate. Alternatively, some things are definitely not agents like water molecules.
During his reply to me, he mentioned that someone had written his motto on the whiteboard and I said, somewhat quietly, “that was me” so that the 6 people around me laughed but I don’t know who else heard. His reply was what I thought it would be, as were many of his other replies. I do not believe that is due to great insight on my part, but to the strong influence of his writings which have given me an idea of how he thinks.
I can’t remember any of the other questions, so, moving the plot along, the lecture session ended with a second round of applause and then people were invited to partake in refreshments. I had my books ready to be signed, so I decided not to wait and just went up to him. There were a couple of people gathering but his computer was still out, so he requested to let himself get packed up. I thought he could handle an easy question while doing that, so I asked him, “Could one say ‘No one’s in charge’ as a general characterization of things or is that a misstep?” He said that is fine at the sub-personal level, but beyond that, you are in charge. To further go into the reasoning behind this reply requires far more detail (and competence) than I have the time to go into (or gain).
Tragedy struck! I realized I only had 3 of the 5 books that I wanted him to sign because I had split them up in my bag and only took the plastic bag containing the three. I felt the impulse to run and get the two other books but then I would lose my spot as first in line. What to do! I chose to have the three signed then and try to get the other two signed later. Of course this will matter to no one but me, but the two that were left unsigned at that time were two of his more important works to me (Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room), while the three I had were less so, with the exception of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (the final two being The Intentional Stance and Sweet Dreams). I had put a sticky note with my name on the front so he wouldn’t have to ask how to spell (something I got from the organizers when I saw Hitchens speak). I said something like “I’ll just gush for a minute and say that you are my intellectual idol and your work has had a huge influence of me.” He said thank you of course but I can’t quite remember his response in detail (he was looking down and signing one of my books). I have these visual and auditory snippets of him signing books, his body posture, my position in space, and his words, which are all interesting, but would be better if they were in greater detail.
I asked him if there was anything left he really wanted to explore or was he just trying to present the same ideas from different angles. He said that he was fortunate to have some good ideas when he was young and has been explaining them ever since (this is what I would have predicted). Dennett mentioned that he had a lot of difficulty when he wrote Freedom Evolves because he didn’t want to just keep quoting himself. Then he said something like, “and the problem was that I put one of the most important lines in a footnote: "If you make yourself really small, you can externalize virtually everything." As Dennett was saying this I was able to complete the sentence (because he had said the same line in Freedom Evolves and I remembered it… and when I read the line in Elbow Room afterwards I thought of that too). I believe the point has to do with the boundary of self-hood and that by considering certain things as either inside or outside of you, you can manipulate the size of your self.
Additionally, I requested that he and Douglas Hofstadter get together and just film a conversation between them talking about the self and consciousness, like the Four Horsemen, and put it online. He said he’d have to talk to Doug about that and also that Doug is usually more reluctant to do such things. I also had the chance to ask him if he had a favourite book of his or would the answer be too complicated to be meaningful? He replied with affirmation regarding complexity but after a short period said, “Maybe Elbow Room…” My perception of event order is not so strong after this moment, so either right after or soon after I asked if I could get a photo (which Xander took)…actually, I just remembered… I think other people were getting stuff signed and Xander took a photo of me pointing at Dennett like “My good friend Steven Pinker” and then after others were done getting things signed I asked Dennett for a photo. I sort of naturally ended up putting my arm on his shoulder (even though I did think about it before I did it), and Xander took the photo. Then Dennett said something like, “Well, just a second” and put his arm around me. He then said, “Take another.” In short, happy Darren! :D
After that I just tried to enjoy the experience and afterglow, let others talk to him, took a quick photo for Xander, ate what was leftover from the food and refreshments table far too rapidly (because we had to get going) and felt delight and relief. Boxes to be ticked on the checklist: Met Dennett, got photo, three books signed, asked questions and shared importance of his influence. Boxes empty: two books to be signed, several questions to be asked.
It was a little after 3:00 pm at this time and the next while includes walking through the tunnels and hallways of Carleton to pick up ad banners for the evening event, and then trying to find a spot where I could stretch out. We eventually managed to find some ugly long and padded benches (green and red/white polka dots, really?) where we got some rest. Then back through the tunnels and corridors to try to meet someone and then to a buffet dinner which was pretty good, but mainly because I didn’t have to pay for it. Nice to talk to some people with similar ideas, but I was tired and didn’t want to sit too long. Near the end of my time there, Dennett and the group with him entered and it was amusing to see him with a plate of food. Yes, I know he eats food… but still!.
As I know you are curious, the questions that remained for me to ask him were: (1) Are we going to build a conscious robot anytime soon? (2) Can you keep all your ideas in your working space memory? (3) What did you think of Matthew Elton’s book? (4) Is your reasonable and balanced style a result of your personality or is it a tactic which requires much effort? I also wanted to mention that some preliminary work indicates playing Tetris might help reduce PTSD symptoms because the activity interferes with the encoding of certain types of memories, as well as that his Thank Goodness piece was the tipping point for a friend to really start challenging her supernaturalism. So, I somehow had to fit all that in after the evening talk. Now, I was in charge of getting Dennett from the presentation hall to the reception area so I knew I would be able to ask 2-3 at that time, assuming he wasn’t tired or needed some recovery time.
The period from 7:00-8:00pm was a crazy time of running here and there to ensure that things were going smoothly regarding registration, ushering, reception set-up and other such things; There were many volunteers and Xander was doing far more running around than I, who was starting to wear down. I had to get those two books to be signed, but there were in my bag in a locked room and we couldn’t find the Peter to open it (his office is within the room and he had the key). It all worked out at nearly the last moment (14 minutes to go to Dennett scheduled to begin at 8:05) and I was able to take my spot in the auditorium near the wall at the front as I thought I might have to stand part of the time. Oh, I should also mention there was a gorgeous full moon which I had glimpses of while walking in-between the place where Dennett would speak and the location of the reception; I love moons and some clouds.
I came in through the back so I heard him being introduced (while I did some quick stretches) and then took my seat for the main event. I do not have final numbers, but upwards of 500 people came to see Dennett (they had several overflow rooms which presented the content on video). Dennett was on the other side of the stage from where I was, so it wasn’t so great for pictures, but the angle of the projected presentation made for an interesting, stretchy perspective. The talk was about the evolution of reasons and it was videotaped by Carleton to perhaps be played on CBC radio and other places. I hope there is video as well as the audio available.
I won’t go into a detailed description of the talk, but will mention a few points. Dennett opened with a cute joke – a comparison of photos of Darwin and himself and how some might think Dan is trying to be Charles. Dennett talked about how mindless processes over long periods can create things with large amounts of design (including us), ignorant and mischievous cuckoos, how eukaryotes might have developed, words and memes, and that while there a reasons in the world they are usually only represented by us (to us, to ourselves) – the usual Dennettian suspects.
Dennett was well-spoken, amusing and intelligent. There were some new things in the presentation which I appreciated, unfortunately I cannot quite remember a main one, and the other was just a good reminder of something to which I was previously exposed: The “Jesus fish” is so named because it is a symbol of Christianity and the letters in the Greek word for fish, I-C-T-H-U-S, are used to spell the out Greek words saying, loosely, Jesus Christ God’s Son and Saviour. Dennett was talking about this with a friend and his friend challenged him, “What does Darwin stand for?” So Dennett went off for half an hour and dusted off his old Latin and came up with DARUUIN (as there is no ‘W’ in Latin) which stands for Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscas. This phrase translates to “Destroy the author of things in order to understand the infinite universe.” I think that is a really great line and you can see a screen shot here from a different talk here (the links do not work though).
After the talk, I made a beeline for the microphone to ensure I would be able to ask a question. I was the first one at one of the two microphones and was second to ask a question (which I had Jonathan Abrams use my camera to record video of Dennett listening to and replying). It was neat to be in a room of over 400 people and ask my idol a question. The question was about conscious robots and again I tried to structure it in a way that would make the most sense and say what I wanted to say, so it was something like: My question is about conscious robots. I don’t mean how we are conscious and made up of little robots, or that, in some sense, we are conscious robots, but in the sense of artificial intelligence, man-made robots becoming conscious. Ray Kurzweil thinks there is a technological revolution, the singularity, coming and this will happen in the near future and I wanted to hear your thoughts about that. (That last sentence is likely the least accurate) I believe you think this is possible in principle and I wanted to clarify that, and also whether you thought it was plausible in practice, and if so, what would the timeline be on that. Now, from what I’ve read previously, Dennett does think it is possible in theory, but there won’t be conscious robots mainly because there wouldn’t be resources for it to happen.
Dennett replied first by saying, “There are conscious robots – us!” which amused me because I thought he would say such a thing so I tried to pre-empt that comment to not waste time, but it is probably too irresistible a line as it got a big laugh. He then said it was possible but he didn’t think it was going to happen. He is of course aware of Kurzweil stuff and thought it was overreaching. Basically, it would be possible to build a mechanical bird to fly around and land on a twig in a lab, but why would you? The resources would be so great for a conscious robot (more than the moon shot) that he thought it would be unlikely to receive such funding, and therefore unlikely to happen. So, giving my expectations, the answer wasn’t anything really new, but I was happy to have him clarify and speak directly to the issue.
After a few more questions (about pain and conflict, and the possible flaws with the adaptationist paradigm…) it was wrapped up and we applauded again. I soon went on the stage to help usher him to the reception. I helped unplug his laptop and tried to get him to go in a certain direction, but his friend Andy had other plans. Before we descended the stairs off the stage one girl snuck up and asked if she could ask one question (In such situations I always want to say, ‘you mean two questions?’) and he complied. She asked that if we aren’t living for our genes then what are we living for? It reminded me just how easy it is to make missteps when learning new things. Dennett replied like I thought he would: Whatever you like, your hopes and dreams and such. Of course things are more complicated, but he can make a good case if he had more time.
Hopefully the talk will be available both so you will be able to experience it if you are interested and so I will be able to compare the experience and memories of being there with what will be an accurate depiction of the content. This is especially true for the question I posed, but I would also just like to hear/see it again.
We went down the stage stairs and out the back; I mentioned it was must be a long day for him (as a test to see if he needed a moment or if I could pester him with more questions) and he said, “Well, you get used to it” in an upbeat voice. Green light. I asked him, “You’ve been thinking and writing about your ideas for years, so/but are you able to keep them all in your working space memory?” He quickly said, “No” which sounded like a truncated version of “Oh, no!” with the style of “That would be far too difficult.” I really wanted to explore more about how he sees the world, but there wasn’t time so I just mentioned that there is a Facebook group called “When I forget what I think, I check Daniel Dennett’s writings” and he was amused. Through the doors and down the stairs during which time I mentioned the book I read about him by Matthew Elton and I asked what he thought about it. He said, “That’s a good book… but I think there is a better one.” As soon as he started to not easily pronounce/generate the name of the author of this better book, I knew which one he was talking about and then we both stumbled our way through it to agreement (for those who care, that author is Tadeusz Zawidzki). I lead him to the table which had been set up to sign books, and since there was no one yet in any sort of line, I took the chance to have him sign my other two books (Elbow Room and Consciousness Explained). And with that, I was pretty much done (check, check). Once more gathered, I started to organize people into a line and then we used sticky notes to have people write their names on the front of the stuff they wanted signed. The line was usually 10-15 deep and when it was smaller and almost done invariably there would be one or two more people that would line up. During that period I realized there were two more things I wanted to say to him, which I was able to do when he was finishing up signing books. The first was that I thought he would like to know that his Thank Goodness was the tipping point for a friend to question supernaturalism. He brightened (no pun intended for those in the know), smiled and said, “Oh that’s great, I do love hearing that.” Finally, I was able to mention the Tetris thing and he thought that was interesting. There was a final impromptu picture with a group of about 10 people and Dennett, so that was nice. At that period, I was truly done and said so to Jon, who then asked if there was more I wanted, joking asking if I would go follow him out the building. I said something like, “I know enough about diminishing returns to be happy with everything that has happened and I’ll probably think of something later, but right now I wouldn’t have anything specific to ask him.” So once again a happy and now contented Darren existed. Dennett departed and I chatted with a few others with similar worldviews and interests and then Jon kindly drove Xander and me home (where we postponed a debate about Chomsky to avoid tainting my Dennett day).

The day was a truly significant and enjoyable experience; it was not life-altering, but I did not think it would be. I was energized most of the day and happy to just finally meet and hear (in person) the man who has influenced me so greatly. Upon reflection I am increasing pleased at how things turned out because there could have been far less harmony with my expectations/plans and reality – he could have been less kind or less reasonable, perhaps he would have denied a photo or I couldn’t have had all my books signed, or that I wouldn’t have been able to ask him 7 or 8 questions (although I did realize the one question I forgot after we left Carleton). Once home I giddily looked at my signed books, thought about how fortunate I was and how good life is, and talked with my friend Owen about my happy day.
In conclusion,
Daniel Dennett didn’t disappoint. Darren’s day? Delightful!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

A cautious, reasoned and detailed argument for the theory of descent with modification due to the power of natural selection, which will be fascinating, dry or a mixture depending on a reader’s interests. Darwin marshals numerous lines of evidence, from flowers and bees, to dogs and ants, to birds and bats, to support his theory; which though partly informative, I already agreed with him and knew some of the content, thus the occasionally tedium. However, it was useful to experience such an examination of classification of species and varieties in which it was made abundantly clear that the terms were not precisely defined, agreed upon and used consistently. Darwin’s theory offered greater explanatory power than anything else put forth as well as falsifiability – the hallmarks of good science. Additionally, he used human selective breeding (artificial selection) as stepping stone for understanding how natural selection could work; a wise tactical move.
One should read Origin if they will be satisfied to learn just what it was that Darwin said that changed the world, what he knew, what he did not, and how he tried to overcome the gap between the two; he acknowledged the shortcomings and offered various hypotheses to resolve complications.
On the Origin of Species is truly an intelligent, insightful and sustained science-based argument that is as cogent as it was revolutionary.

Selected Quotations:
“Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgement of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained -- namely, that each species has been independently created -- is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.”

(Chapter 1)
“The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, and in individuals of different species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so; why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or other much more remote ancestor; why a peculiarity is often transmitted from one sex to both sexes or to one sex alone, more commonly but not exclusively to the like sex.”

(Chapter 3)
"Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring."

"Throw up a handful of feathers, and all must fall to the ground according to definite laws; but how simple is this problem compared to the action and reaction of the innumerable plants and animals which have determined, in the course of centuries, the proportional numbers and kinds of trees now growing on the old Indian ruins!"

“… that the structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.”

(One could see how this could be, and probably was, misused)
“All that we can do, is to keep steadily in mind that each organic being is striving to increase at a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

(Chapter 14, ending)
"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography by Janet Browne

A very accessible introduction to the life of Charles Darwin and his book that changed the world. This work is mainly a biography but also manages to provide historical context (and some future implications) for the idea of evolution by natural selection. Browne covers the influence of Lyell and Malthus on Darwin's thinking, the pressure from Wallace to publish, Darwin's sickly life, and his popularity in his day.
As Darwin spent many hours examining barnacles his son mistakenly got the impression that that is what all fathers did. This is seen when he asked one of his friends, "Where does your father do his barnacles?"

Monday, February 02, 2009

Neuromancer by William Gibson

A good book - which was still interesting despite being written in the mid-80s. Gibson depicts a futuristic technological society where people manipulate their minds and bodies with chemicals and operations. Hackers roam the matrix (something like our Internet) and experience virtual reality while they try to break the codes of government and business.

Like much sci-fi, it was good because of the concepts presented but not really because of the prose or character development. There were several moments where I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I don’t think one is fully supposed to, or that it really mattered. Further, at various times, it did seem like it was almost a movie script.

As I have a current interesting in technological developments and what might happen in my lifetime, I appreciated Neuromancer for displaying interesting possibilities. Thus, as the plot contains A.I.’s battling each other, computer processes dominating the world, people being able to experience the sensations of another among other situations, I found it useful and interesting. I especially find the notion of how A.I.s might think (with logic, understanding, and therefore a resignation of sorts) fascinating; and how they might use human like projections because we could’t quite understand them otherwise (not that we need the anthropomorphization, but because their world of math, matrices and code would be unintelligible).

Finally, as a fan of The Matrix, I could’t help but find it illuminating that the main character is trying to break/hack into a main A.I. both in the real world and in the matrix, and he is getting help from black natives of Zion. Consequently, I now see The Matrix as less original than I used to (and chances are Gibson’s plot line isn’t that different from many others). It appears that the more one learns of prior productions, the less impressed one is regarding the originality of contemporary works.