Saturday, November 28, 2009


When I drowned; when the canoe filled and then dragged me with it to the bottom in response to me thinking that a slight tug would bring it back to the surface. When the whirlpool made me topsy turvy, and my sneakers had no bite even if I did know which way was up. My entire life really did take static shape (I know no time could have passed, since I'm still alive). Each event, each person, each season was there in an eternal present before I took my last gasp.

And now my children's lives, stowed in the dumpster, have passed me by too. The toys, the birthday cards, the things I'd forgotten that I'd given them, the things I never knew they saved. Plays written on paper, computer stories, games we'd played, trainsets, dolls, marbles, clothes. Each one a pinpoint. Each one eternal. Each one now departed.

I am not a story corps kind of guy, I don't think. That framing of a voice, which has so much power to reveal its surprising truth, succumbs too much to temptations of immortality. As though if the medium were perfected, the truth also could endure.

On my bedroom door now, a print from a former student, attributed to Zhao Lihong. I remove it now for you, dear reader, and store it with my other books, and a few precious things of my childrens' childhood:


Those engraved on rocks
May not last forever;
Those printed words
May not be immortal

Yet, that which flits by like cloud or smoke
Does not necessarily vanish;
That which falls like a meteor
Does not necessarily depart.

And there among the dress-up clothes was my daughters infant outfit, sized for a small doll. She is grown now and enjoying the challenges of hard work. And a card celebrating my birthday, from her sister, to the man who is old enough to "make shit up" and that was many years ago before I had an excuse. She's off to college.

I was stopped.

I carry on.

It needn't be perfect. The love is plenty.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Still trying . . . verily

I'm still trying to get some reading time in, still trying to keep up with some approximation of mastery of the Internet for the sake of business, still trying to find time to pack and move out of the house. I don't know how anybody pulls off life and love and making a living. I really don't.

I had a great Thanksgiving though, thank you very much. First to the ex-laws, where I felt perfectly welcome, but am never certain, since whoever's not there can be the subject of some damning by faintest praise. And no, that's not why I went! And I did my best to correct the record on behalf of yet another soon to be ex-law, but my reasons are simply to follow my daughter, whom I otherwise would never see. Despite being the servant driver-guild member of the family.

About which I really should get a clue, since servanthood never gets a person anything at all. But then on to the more in-law side of the family, daughter still in tow, or towed by, but in any case, I felt very privileged to sit beside my nephew who'd just written a paper on quantum computing, and could therefore explain it to me with admirable lucidity and poise.

I'm plain jealous is all. Also of my niece back from Ghana who will likely compile episodic epistles into epic culture crossing tales of considerable interest, just like my old classmate Mark Salzman did with Iron and Silk. You see, I'm just dropping names all over the place now, requiring some cred for my waning years.

I was among the lucky readers of Salzman's letters home, which got xeroxed and reproduced by faithful Professorial servants. Imagine the work we had to do back then to get read! Now, it's all reproduced all over the place, and can go from naught to bejillions in nearly a Catalytic jiffy.

Which is what quantum computers promise too! Sure, you know I'm going to shrug my shoulders and claim, "yeah yeah," in self-conscious rehearsal of the supposed impossibility of a double-positive becoming a negative. Why shouldn't double negation not have all the fun?

So, I'm still very trying, but since I was assured that quantum computers don't and can't change the basic laws of the Turing machine, I'm not terribly worried even still (yet?) about impending machine consciousness. It's not like they're just going to wake up some day and start thinking! Which as I've already explained now over and over again, is a social function which depends on language and distance between, much more than it does on computational prowess.

If you just collapse some exponential number of potential states, you might be able to break every cryptogram ever imagined, but you still won't be able to think. Though breaking cryptography is in itself an interesting enough prospect that our own vaunted NSA (No Such Agency, for those of you without ex-laws who work there) spends billions of our non-existent tax dollars working on it.

After all, they absolutely, completely, utterly totally must get there before you and I do.

So, picture this - and I hope you laugh as hard as I do silently to myself - junior minions handing up translations of, let's say, enemy transport transmissions of potential interest. Now these minions are generally selected for their never having been contaminated by excursions out and away from these our shores, nor into thinking which isn't politically corrected already. They might come from Ivy Leagues, and maybe even secret societies, but you won't find any freethinkers there, because first of all why would they want to sign their freedom away, and second of all they couldn't be trusted.

So, up the chain the snippet gets handed, to someone whos job it has been to stay employed despite the changing not only political winds, but also the changing linguistic winds, as in today Russian, tomorrow Chinese, and in the meantime Arabic.

So, that's a pretty good definition of job survival skills, don't you think? of a decidedly bureaucratic fashion, and these types will decide which snooped snippets are worthy of scrutiny, just in case, you know, somebody wants to fly a plane into some tower again.

As if advanced cryptography will help us distinguish between Atilla needs to take a dump and Atilla needs to dump a city. And I can practically guarantee that those bureaucratic folks would never be able to decrypt what I'm saying here, no matter how powerful their algorithmic thinking.

I'm just saying. Sometimes hiding in plain sight is the best way to stay invisible, although sure, these huge armies of translators will at least be able to scout out the larger patterns and learn who to focus in on. Just like hi-resolution cameras can do, and pattern recognition mass e-mail readers which the NSA would also never deploy. Employ.

But really folks, do you think it takes advanced encryption to hide your intentions? Do you think there's any defense against people who spontaneously come up with the same idea at the same time because it occurred to them for the same reasons, because, well we're all just herd animals anyhow? Schools of fish? Dispossessed and reading the very same signals of what, intention is it? to dominate their lives?

Git along little dogies? And I have coyotes almost every night singing out nearby, and still my cats do manage to survive the wild. I suspect we could too if we weren't so freaking determined to be authentic, each and every blue-jeaned one of us. Yeah Yeah Yeah!! (three times and you're outed as a positive-type thinker)

Like, look at me, I'm so special because I'm American and nice and born-again and you should be too, because nobody knows lovin' the way Jesus does? Which might be perfectly true, until you use that fact against people and then they just do things whose intention requires no decryption whatsoever to read. And Jesus would never do the stuff we do, hiding behind his name. And I don't care which brand or style you're talking about, the real one in your heart or the concocted one of 2000 year old bureaucratic fiction. Not a single one of those Named perps would carry on the way we do.

I mean, it's not so much what you say as what you do, right? We smile broadly and eat too much of the world's stuffing is what we do.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Catalytic Thanksgiving

Lots of Post Modernist types like me have a little problem with celebrating our invasion of this Brave New World. But you know, we weren't as successful in our predations as we sometimes make out. It was really the bugs we brought over which decimated the Native Americans. Without those diseases, we probably would have been utterly turned back by superior warriors with something real to fight for.

Now we're terrified of other supposedly unenlightened types, who believe in a different style of spirituality from our own. And we go at them with the very same mismatch of weaponry, and we'll probably take credit too, when they perish, inevitably, of the diseases of modernism. Like our blue jeans, we spread these incidentally over the entire globe, never mind our rapacious designs on earth's treasures.

Still, I don't mind celebrating Thanksgiving in its true spirit. It's a time to come together with friends and family, and actually to remember who lived here first, and what we would be without that grant. I suppose you could almost say that the Natives here will celebrate the last laugh as we kill ourselves off now with corn sweeteners.

But we're not dead yet.

We still have a chance to retreat from Empire building. Our President, ever the wiser man, has postponed his announcement of new swarms of troops until after we feast. And then he will invite the entire world to take part in what still can be a mission to create rather than to destroy our peace.

It's never easy, though, when those we send have been so mis-schooled into thinking that we are the good guys by the default of dreaming it up. That somehow our flag is better than theirs, and our style of family gathering puts theirs to shame. Whoever they are.

There is something magical about what we, the people, have created on these stolen shores. The whole world saw it, just as the whole world cringes when we act like uncivilized and spoiled bratty usurpers. If we actually do manage legitimately to reclaim for ourselves what it is we've given over to crass corporatism these last forty or so years, then there will be no trouble at all getting the world to join our efforts.

We've come of age now since pretty womanizing JFK beat the television marketing bejeezus right out of innocent wooden Tricky Dick. Let's prove it to the whole world. Let's show that we can't be fooled by the marketers into believing in an America as completed fact, when we're still very much on the make.

We've never yet been true to our promise.

We're still brand new. Our entire history up until now has been one long story of greed and corruption, which has been just fine for so long as there remained great stores from mother nature.

Our frontier has ended. There's no more free bounty. Our frothy wealth no longer spills freely over the entire globe. We're suffocating our earth, and it's long since become clear that we're not innocent about the misery in our wake.

Mom's lost her patience, and has no more to grant us in any case. It's time for us to smarten up, give up the magical thinking of our youth, and re-read our constitution.

There won't be endless stores of oil, and even if there were, it would melt us down to burn them. There won't be endless clean energy to allow us to continue a rapacious life-style. There won't be some savior coming down from the skys. But there's plenty we can do right here and now if we decide to.

Let's show the world what we've got in us. Let's get our act together, and stop allowing the ones who have only proven their success in the old world - the modern world - from continuing to control it now. They're done. They have nothing to offer us now.

The oil companies, the drug marketers, the health insurance consortiums. They sell death and we should know it. There's far too much good news afoot for us to let the ones who hoard our wealth make all the decisions. We the people should give thanks and then take back our government. You have to wonder why we gave it away in the first place, unless we thought folks with good hair and pretty faces were really that much better than us.

Spread some love. It travels faster and better than H1N1, and won't make anyone rich who doesn't need to be.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Catalytic Marketing

I like this term "Catalytic". I like it better than "viral" which has been used to describe the way that Youtube videos make their way around the Internet. I've watched it in action, when, say, college kids find a really engaging video and pretty soon it's all over campus. Pretty much like a virus.

It quickly becomes necessary to have seen the videos that everyone else has seen, almost reminiscent of the old days when there were only a few networks on TV and everyone had basic familiarity with the lineups. And then they become quaint and impossible to appreciate, because they made the next thing possible.

Of course, I never did have that basic familiarity with TV lineups say, so I don't feel so left out now either. I never did quite engage with popular culture, and even now, when people are getting their flu shots, or when they urge me to take some over the counter drug, I get that huh?? look in my mind, wondering what they're talking about or why they would say such things to me.

I pretty much assume those messages are for other people. I do watch the advertisements, but I guess as a subcategory of my lousy memory, they never stick with me. Although it does seem as though it's yet another case of the permanent memory of learning. I taught myself some ages ago that propaganda is all lies and that only stupid people pay attention to it.

If or when I get the flu and die, you can mock me out (we talk like that in Buffalo) about it, after the fact for certain.

At that school for gifted kids which I headed for a brief time, we expended a lot of effort to bring the kids up to a level of reading which would immunize them to all sorts of tricks of writing. As good readers, they were all able to catch the tricks which would push them toward unsubstantiated conclusions. It was always a little bit alarming to realize how many, if not most, of the naively-schooled kids when they started were utterly defenseless against such things. It took a lot of work to expose shoddy arguments. And then it would become second nature.

I think that Twitter is a case of viral marketing. Somehow it became a thing that everyone just had to do if they were going to be paid attention. And, yes of course, I still don't get it. I have a Twitter account, but I don't have very many followers. I guess I have a few, and I was supposed to return the favor and follow them back on the assumption that we all want exposure.

But I still really really don't get how it works. It seems as though it's a rapidly flowing stream of little messages, from among which how the hell would you pull the ones you're interested in? It's just another way for those at the top to rise further still, as far as I can tell, which makes it a part of that same vicious feedback loop which keeps the spammers spamming.

Well, someday someone will explain all this to me. Meantime, I'll just keep trying to get attention by making sense. Which, of course, I do realize I'm pretty clueless about also.

I think I must be missing some big chunk of feedback loop myself. When I write, I know perfectly well that I can't sense how someone else might read me. But it's not that easy to fix it up. At least it's not for me.

I think we all look with curiosity in mirrors as we pass them, to check out how we might look to the world. But I never really do get a clue. My curiosity is never satisfied. I look to myself like some Cubist construction which can't possibly make any sense.

No sense of style, a geek's sense of clash, I remember once - I still cringe at the memory - going out to the theater in really old clothes I'd found in a relative's attic. This was an elderly gent who needed help getting around, and I was a student who needed a cheap place to live. And somehow he still had in his closet his old finery from days long gone by.

Among old things in his attic, were some really well tailored clothes from another era, which fit me perfectly. He'd said I could, of course, take them, and I thought they looked really cool.

Now, given my sense that all advertisements are meant for other people, you can easily imagine how I thought I didn't look any more silly than people who sport wildly colored and striped running shoes, no matter what else they're wearing. Or sports clothes in general, for that matter, which I would plainly be too embarrassed to wear. It's funny how loud colors and bold racing stripes can make you disappear. They make me feel conspicuous. Go figure!

But I knew then, but was bullishly obtuse about it, that I was raising eyebrows with what must have looked like a theatrical costume. The waist was high, there were buttons instead of a zipper, elaborate cuffs and pleats, and a broadcloth wool flannel shirt.

As it happened, I actually think that look came into style a little later, but I was just a plain ass and cringe to think about it still. I think that's the way I write too. I can be so far inside the words sometimes that I have absolutely no sense of how someone else might read them. Only much later, or as the result of someone's offhand comment, can I be jarred into seeing it like it is. Like when you overhear or oversee someone caricaturing you, and you suddenly realize some little thing. Ouch.

It's all moderately painful. But also, maybe, related to what I'm trying to call "catalytic marketing" as differentiated or opposed, maybe, from "viral marketing".

Someone has to be a trendsetter. In the world of ideas, or the world of science, there is often a race to be the one out front. And if the discovery can be trued, then very quickly everyone's sense of style begins to quicken in that direction.

This is a catalytic process, and its results are fairly permanent. Unlike viruses, which kill off a bunch of hosts and then fall in to the background themselves once the population has made its adjustments.

I'm reading this book now, written by the former Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang, who ran afoul of party orthodoxy upon the events at Tiananmen square back in 1989. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, but still managed to secrete and smuggle out his thoughts by overtaping childrens' cassettes. It's a fascinating look inside the pinnacles of power.

He likens the corruption which China so famously unleashed during the time of first opening of their economy, to a kind of inevitable virus against which there were no institutional defenses. There was simply too much power in the hands of the government officials who had been in control of state run industries, and too much money in the hands of newly liberated businesspeople. Across that disconnect was a kind of undeniable voltage, which would inevitably lead to corruption.

If you can buy at state controlled prices and then sell on the market, of course you will, because there's too much money to be made. Zhao was confident that the institutional structures would catch up. But the rest of the cabal in power could not abide his speaking out of step against their absolute authority, and so he was silenced almost completely and almost permanently.

You have to assume that one day pretty soon, a kind of catalysis will take place in China. Where certain kinds of information will make it through the censors, and power structures will start to break up in their brittleness.

Or maybe not, since the intellectuals there now have so thoroughly internalized a kind of patriotism which is for all the world reminiscent of Confucian quasi-religious honor toward their Center.

The patriotism of Chinese intellectuals is an almost perfect analog to our own intellectuals' commitment to "democracy" as an ideal which is almost perfectly tarnished inside the intellectuals' academies themselves. Where everything is rank-order and politically correct. Honor in the breach, I guess. There would be no place at all in any academy for people who talk and think the way they do around where I live. I'm not saying there should be. I'm just pointing out the obvious. And scholarship is not just a matter of the cultivation of taste and style. There are much more serious things at stake than that.

And so we ourselves, in these United States, as lots of smart people understand perfectly well, have perfected state control by a kind of drowning out by the noise of commerce, the dangerous thoughts of anyone who would rail against our system. It's almost as if the more clearly you are able to state you case, the more marginalized you become, to any political party. Think Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader. Speaking straight will get you alienated from all strategists, no matter which side they're on.

However poorly our economic system does to provide for equitable distribution of wealth, it surely does a better job, for us inside our borders, than most systems which have been imagined. It would be crazy now to undermine the basics of free markets. Except at the extremes of size and power, there is no more rational way to line up supply with demand.

Which leaves us only to consider the optimal political arrangements for generating agreement about how to resolve the really big problems so that we can keep the market magic working.

Almost no-one on this continent would favor the Chinese methods. We celebrate free thought far too much, even while we throw sticks and stones at it. But as Tom Friedman and many others point out very effectively, we don't show any real promise about getting our act together to resolve the really really big issues, like global warming, or energy effectiveness, or healthcare.

Our political arrangements tend almost inevitably toward do-nothing compromises such as the one we're about to get with healthcare. We attempt to prevent harm to the bulk of the major franchises, to the point where no real forward motion is possible, and we end up with the same old same old, still tending toward catastrophe.

But a kind of catalysis can still occur. It happens all the time with marketing. Someone sees an actual use for something new, and it just catches on. I'm thinking of the really big things like telephones, and railroads, and automobiles, each of which was an abomination for many, or extremely improbable, but each of which very quickly became a fundamental necessity.

It's almost unbelievable to me, walking the streets of New York, how many people have Walkmans - whoops, I meant iPods - stuffed into their ears. I can't tell if it's a matter of style now, or if it really makes these people happy. Very few of them look happy, I must say, Perhaps they're getting the daily news.

This is the way our thinking will change too. And it will change, because it must. You really don't own your own mind, no matter how much you value free-thinking. Your mind is and will always be a function of commerce in so-called ideas. Your certainties can always be upset by someone more expert than you. If you're open minded, they must be.

Does "catalytic marketing" fit better than "viral marketing"?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Near Geneva, Particles Finally Come Together With a Bang

Well. I'm still enough of a science geek to find this very exciting. The Large Hadron Collider seems to be starting up this time. Cool.

Of course it will be quite a while yet before they can calibrate the thing and run it up to full power to do the real experiments we've all been waiting for. I guess that still gives me time to make my opposing case: that this spells the end of "normal science" within the current paradigm.

I feel so strangely calm about it, not really caring a whole lot if the machine works, or if it breaks down again, but surely hoping that interesting things are discovered and that no-one gets hurt along the way.

As must all people of my generation, I remember the rocket launches of my youth so vividly. We all gathered in school to watch on TV, without any dissenting voices that this was some political stunt. It was exciting beyond imagining, and gave a sense of promise to our future.

I knew I wasn't going up in any spaceships, since that took too much military commitment, so I turned to the inner space of our oceans and took up SCUBA diving. Oh, sure, I thought about becoming a Navy SEAL, when I didn't want to be a secret agent. But for me, the trouble started when Lake Erie, along whose shores I grew up, turned so clouded with death that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face beneath its waters.

And very gradually, I've awakened to the essentially political content of all our boldest moves. These contests and challenges which get us cheering wild. But the war in Vietnam really did put an end to one sort of patriotic ferver. And the shuttle disasters gave some perspective to our outer space explorations.

Now the Large Hadron Collider elicits hardly any collective excitement at all. It's way too geeky and hard to understand. I guess everyone believes that there could be some interesting outcomes from such a huge experiment in basic science. We retain some hope for a renewal of that enthusiasm which Einstein once elicited.

Among other things, Einstein was a first among mass-media celebrities. He was a world-class personality, who became our image of the great discoverers of the modern world.

In our Post Modern reality, these celebrities have been replaced by the uber-geek; a kind of triumph of the nerds, who do stuff which doesn't merit superstar adulation, but which we're all glad for them to do. Since we do appreciate their cool resulting products.

Science has become a plodding massive enterprise, whose superstars now are represented well enough by the Intel ads. Every once in a while, some individual scientist with a populist touch makes it onto PBS or among the bestselling authors. Following on Carl Sagan's legacy maybe.

I liked Sagan's take on making Contact! Where there was no way to determine if the actual contact with alien life was made in reality or in the time-traveler's mind. Where the really expensive machine provided something impossible to distinguish from really dangerous drugs.

I don't think the Large Hadron Collider is in that category at all. We're not looking to make contact with anything other than the limits to what our mind can comprehend. The limits to what we can consider the hard facts of reality.

Whatever happens over there, I really do hope that the machine does work. There is no question that we will learn something important as a result of it firing up successfully.

My prediction has been, and I'm pretty sure will remain, consistent. There will be the somewhat disappointing discovery that there is no real end to the splitting of infinities among the particles which we can detect. This is the Zeno paradox all over again, written as large as it can get.

We will sort-of detect a sort-of particle, all the while continuing to hunt for certainties in the world around us. While, in actual fact, it's long past obvious that there are none at those limits.

At the limits of the ability of human mind to comprehend, there will only be the reflection of our effort to comprehend, and we will be thrown back to wonder what we should do instead to generate the modest agreements which are required for continued life on the planet.

I think it sometimes pleasant to speculate what we could know if our brains were that much more powerful than they are. But it just may be that the limits to intelligence are also the limits to what we can do with mind collectively.

It is my position that conscious intelligence has never been the property of individual minds. And that therefore, the "equipment" on which mind rides is not its limiting factor. Instead, what ultimately limits mind is those same limits in our ability to get along; to agree, to coordinate our efforts.

So, without question, I celebrate the triumph of this CERN collider. Getting it built and funded across cultural and language barriers gives hope also that there is something bigger than these United States, which can gather the best among us in some conspiracy of hope.

I like that this effort is post-patriotic, post-partisan, and the purest sort of science. What I don't like is that only the purest sort of science can engender this level of agreement. We still seem so far away, with anything short of particle physics.

Still - and here's how far out I remain myself - I'm going to keep writing simply because the more I write, the more I discover around me that there is less and less distance between what I say and what the world is waking up to.

Neither you nor I will be able to tell if that's because my own thinking continues to evolve, or if it's because, like Orpheus praying for the sunrise, this type of thinking has to be carried on, even in the absence of anyone paying attention, as a kind of prayer into the non-existent ether.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Breast Examiners Wanted

Yes, yes, very rude indeed. We were talking about the smart grid at lunch today - I treated my former IT colleagues using a going-away gift certificate I'd been given for my favorite restaurant. The lunch was what they call NSFW (I think that means Not Safe For Work) and these poor guys had to return to there, while I could wend my way back home. I felt lucky for a day!

Being a bunch of open-minded and pretty smart guys, we were relating all these seemingly unrelated concepts, which is fun to do over lunch. I was telling them about, and what we hope to accomplish, and encouraging them about how important IT will be to the smartening of our power grid, and to the health-care debates. (I was feeling guilty about being glad to leave IT behind)

How important it will be to wash your clothes when the wind is blowing, say, and have your meter tell you the current price of power, and advise you about what time will be best to use it. Little stimuli to meet the problem from both ends. How you can power up your electric car at home during the night and then sell the excess back during the day in the big city.

And inevitably, we talked about the risks of colonoscopy (we'll all getting up there in age) which are significant, and add to its cost via the insurance system. And then the reverse lottery of the breast exam, which gives so little collective value, but which you manifestly can't deny to women who feel entitled to it. All the motives in place for disinformation, because everyone - and they have lobbyists - wants to preserve their piece of the franchise.

Just like when I'm selling my house, I have to pay all this protection money about the title and the survey, even though nothing's changed. IT could help here too, since not every case requires the full treatment. The land surveys could be matched against one another. But there are a lot of franchises to be protected.

Not every woman is at enough risk to get any real benefit from breast screening. But of course, we worry about the genetic data - which would help determine who needs the most frequent exams - getting into the wrong hands. Speaking of which, the one young guy in the crowd was limber enough of mind to suggest the obvious - that there are lots of guys out there'd who'd be willing to be trained to do breast exams for free!

OK, sure, it's a crude and very politically incorrect guy joke. But it puts me in mind of the brilliant scholar who has exposed the incredible costs of free parking. He pretty convincingly demonstrates that if we were simply to charge drivers the true cost to park their car, almost all the insanity on the planet could be resolved. We wouldn't have to tax gasoline, we wouldn't have to massively subsidize mass transit, and we would instantly get readers of newspapers again, regardless of the medium on which they get delivered, because people wouldn't waste so much time driving and looking for parking!

So, lots of guys think they want to examine women's breasts, right? The key issue being that the whole clinical setting required for such examinations pretty much kills the motive. I've been examined plenty of times by women doctors, and it seems pretty clear to me that arousal under such circumstances would be about as out of bounds as lots of kinds we put people in jail for. It's not clear to my head. It's clear to my body.

But I don't know, everyone has different thresholds. Once, when I had phlebitis in my leg, this truly very fetching blond nurse - I'm really not making this up - ran this ultrasound device way way up my leg, riding on some sort of lubricant. The lights were out and there was soft music playing, and I swear I could sense people snickering beyond the door. It seemed a cruel sport.

I guess people get their jollies all sorts of different ways. All I felt was some sort of terror that my alternate brain would get the better of me, which was pretty inhibiting in and of itself. Who knows if I passed or flunked that particular exam. Well, at least I didn't die of a deep blood clot like other folks who drive too much sometimes do. And I'm not as stiff as Richard Nixon, who famously had phlebitis.

So, these unpaid breast examiners would have to pass some kind of female yuch test. They'd have to learn the clinical facade which keeps our doctors honest. And sure, they'd get pretty bored pretty quickly.

But then think of the upside! We could attract the most breast-obsessed guys, cure them of the obsession, and at the same time lower the cost of what has proven to be a pretty low-value reverse lottery scheme to get everyone to be examined. I know it sounds a little too much like A Clockwork Orange. . .

 . . .  but traffic on the Internet could be diverted to more worthwhile things. People might have the time to read some of the cool stuff out there, and lots of wives might save lots of cosmetic surgery.

And in the meantime, we could employ IT to help us decide which women might actually, statistically, benefit from earlier and more frequent exams.

Well, except for that trust issue, which prevents our most private data from making it into the hands of private insurers, who are almost required to use it against us, individually, or be sued by their shareholders.

It's a good argument for the public funding of healthcare, except no-one trusts the government either, likely because of all those lobbyists protecting their franchises. Even or especially the guys in power can't seem to get good intel that isn't motivated somehow.

Still, again, let me digress a little bit more. I know you will!

As I was wending my way home after too much coffee, I saw a wandering cat. All wandering cats seem to look like Stella to me, who is my cat, but who often wanders away for days at a time. And then just when I start mourning, she shows up.

Once, while staying with a friend while I went out West, she disappeared into his walls and didn't come out for nearly two weeks, no matter the enticements offered of tuna and more. She's been given up for dead many many times. That time, she wasn't lost so much as, well, unwilling.

So, apart from the nine lives thing, I was wondering how cats can wander so far and not get lost. Clearly, they don't have any kind of map "in their head" the way we think we do. They aren't doing any kind of spatial analog, which even for people is pretty demonstrably a stretch.

We pore over maps to find our way, and now lots of people obsessively watch these moving GPS maps up toward where they should be watching the road, but it's pretty easy to demonstrate to people the strangeness of their chosing this route to go to this destination and that route to go to that one, when the two paths cross in the middle. Our cognitive maps may be dysfunctional!

I have a pretty good sense of direction; a kind of internal gyroscope which gets me where I want to go, with or without any map. I used to take off on my motorcycle with only a compass, and only once ended up at the road's bitter end, and even then some Methuselah guy pulled me across the river on his handwheel driven ferry. For me, the map was getting in the way of discovery. Some might say I live my life that way, but still I do have that internal compass thing.

Mabye getting our cars off the road would turn us away from our geographic obsession with routes and speed and shortest ways. And we could find our way home however cats do. Probably by smell, and light, and slope and god knows what all. There must be some sort of simple decision tree, allowing each dimension a kind of toward and away.

I've told you before, this works for searching massive data sets too.

I'll just bet the cat also is driven by some emotional compass, where home feels this way and not that. I'll bet none of it is very cognitive at all. I'll bet we humans overpower our own emotional mappings, focusing instead on the triggers for our other brain. Except that, just like cats, when there is no emotional clarity, we just hunker down and stop moving too.

Well, it's a guy thing. We can't ask for directions. We'd rather feel our way along, ahem. And searching massive data sets, we think there must be some GPS too, which will take us to our destination without the need for deciding turns along our way.

But wait! The GPS can help then, to dispose of our internal maps, just like the cellphone address book can do away with the need to remember anyone's number.

I know I'm not the only one to find it strange that we are terrified of terrorists and identity theft, when most of us now hold devices in our hands which can, in principle, target any one of us for individual and anonymous smart-destruction.

We act amazed and a little terrified that Googling ourselves reveals things we didn't think others could know. We want to know how to block that. And yet if each one of us really were public about our genetic and other foibles, that in itself might provide the protection we need against those who would use it against us. But first we'd have to be comfortable doing it.

This is some kind of 40th anniversary year. The CEO of, the moonwalk, the summer of Woodstock, and the Stonewall demonstrations. Where people added up free love and free expression and discovered things about their own feelings they never would have been allowed to know all alone and scared.

Some peoples' defects are on display and public. Some are as private as our genes. It might be time to really let it all hang out. And, um, defuse a little of the power of our great big marketing machines. To me, that's an encouraging thought. But then there really isn't very much that I hold back from you, dear reader.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Instant Evolution!

Back for a minute, to an old and pretty tired theme of mine, I just have to expose this dastardly scheme I cooked up the other day while driving. Driving has to be good for something right? (I never did get into podcasts)

So, what if someday there comes along a really charismatic Jesus preacher, just like so many folks are hoping. And what if this Jesus preacher just gets everyone's ear over some mass-mediated kind of electromagnetic ether, and announces the rapture. We'll allow for asynchronous communications like podcasts here, so let's say he (you can't really imagine a woman doing this, can you. Oh, yeah, well there is Sarah Palin . . . ) announces a time when this will happen, and then tells everyone to get ready.

They can jump off a cliff if they like, or they can just let go of the wheel. It will be a giant test of faith. We have all these technologies cued up for it. (What? You thought automobiles had actual functional uses? If that were the case, they wouldn't be outfitted so much like living-room spaceships; mobile wombs with their view!)

So people would be put to the test. If their faith is real, then they will know that Jesus will be there for them, and the rest of us will be left behind. Well, there will be lots of Catholics left behind too, since they don't do that kind of faith, and their patriarchs would counsel common sense. There'd probably be a lot of crossing going on behind closed doors.

Sensible people would also be made aware of these announcements by the evil mainstream media. MSM would almost certainly have to get wind of the pending rapture since there are so many born-agains in the world that they can hardly keep it secret. I mean, I doubt there are enough encyryption keys to go around for that.

And so sensible people would definitely stay clear of the highways when the moment arrived, perhaps even locking their doors, and plugging their ears against the mayhem.

Hopefully, people wouldn't do a half-assed insurance policy kind of faith which is so popular now among Christians. The kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it Christianity, where it's good to get rich so long as you get the right kind of entertainment on Sunday. That would create a God-awful mess of bloodshed beyond our best-on-the-planet (NOT) healthcare system's ability to clean it up. These people would have a tough decision between their paradise already set up on earth, and the promised one in heaven. They'd probably hedge their bets, I'll just bet.

No, you'd want a really charismatic preacher who would have people aim their cars at each other, turn off the airbags like they do for their kids, or maybe aim right off the cliff, although there can't possibly be enough cliffs either. Hmmmm.

Still, I think we have the technology to make this happen. Lots of God and Country loving people could just point their guns right in their loud mouths, and then bang, evolution would take one giant leap forward in an instant.

All the enraptured people wouldn't know the difference, and I'm pretty sure since I did die once (does that make me born-again?), that they will be in eternal bliss for the second between bang and brain dead. The narrative of one's life expands to perfect stasis -I know for an actual fact - with every detail there before you in nearly vivid color, and I'm sure Jesus would condescend for one last appearance too, to the minds of the faithful.

And the ones left behind would be, well, the evolved ones. Along with enough well-schooled theologians to explain to us that Jesus was only ever real in our hearts and minds. It was never the history which made the magic, although for sure tricking people into faith has a kind of logic to it. Until it backfires. Bam!

Oh, sure OK, I know what you're going to say. What about the technophiles, like that crazy Ray Kurzweil who thinks he's gonna get eternity just by thinking really hard. None of them will take this bait, and so they'll be peppered in among the sane people and the Catholics.

Well, they're smart. They can be a kind of worker-bee class, making widgets for the rest of us on the promise to them that when they achieve their immortality, they can have it!

And so the rest of us will not only be left behind, but we'll have cool widgets to keep us from the creepy crawlies of the earth, but, you know, removed so as to cause no harm. Back in our wombs with a view. Touching nothing that we can hurt. But feeling very much as if we were, virtually, alive!

And outside, life will start all over again without us. And we can watch it on TV, across the generations, eternally, and buzzed.

Hey, you never know! It's a lot nicer than the scenarios I hear from rich folks about how "we're all fucked". And they're in a perfect position to do something about it. It's just an idea is all. The kind you can throw out there for nothing, that's you know, worth about nothing.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Won!

OK, so, that was obvious, right? This one must have been already in the can before that previous one got written where I played the "mega millions". It's all an elaborate hoax, just like scientists are conspiring to keep down the anti-global warming truths,

Isn't this just good science, or is it conspiracy among the scientists?

or in the way that we now can put a lawyer in jail for taking the criminal's side.

Honestly, I did buy a lottery ticket, for which I'm embarrassed as hell. I'm not about to check its number, since it might have been the most insane and crazy thing I've done in my life, and I'm not very proud of it. But well, hell, even I can afford a buck for a simple experiment, right?

The experiment was about how I would feel, and I have to say I didn't do very well. I started thinking about how I could gain lots of recognition for my crazy theories, and then maybe the world would start moving in a different direction.

That's pretty darned grandiose of me, and so I also started worrying about my sanity if I actually did win, which puts me right there in that same camp as all the crazies who buy lottery tickets.

I know you think I need an editor, and I'm not going to disagree with you, but as embarrassing to me as you think my writings sometimes are, I swear to you nothing comes close to how silly this one makes me feel.

But I mean, I really did win - and you can call it the lottery if you like. My sweetheart arrived safely in Paris and thought enough about me to let me know. I arrived safely back from NYC with my daughter. Oh sure, these are really relatively safe roads compared to the ones you drive, since only losers live in Buffalo where there isn't any traffic.

But it could be bumper cars down on Manhattan, and well, sure I'm one of those strange types who actually likes to drive there. There's a flow to it which seems so much saner than L.A., say, where OK, I've never actually driven. And with all those people and buildings you actually do feel like you're going somewhere. Even though it makes no sense to have a car in Manhattan, well except for, you know, sneaking in to pick up your daughter.

And last night I got to see Ha Jin along with maybe a couple thousand other people at a packed house down the street. My good friend won a ticket (I actually don't have even that $35 until my house sells, so I wasn't about to go on my own) and so there we went! He said it wasn't quite like the lottery, since all you had to do is know the names of one of this author's works. Well, I wouldn't have won - oh sure I could have looked it up on the Internet, which would have been like cheating, where my friend actually had the book right on the desk next to him, so he won legit!

And I was blessed. I mean truly blessed. OK, so it was a little bit spooky how people I knew didn't recognize me. I mean, in a way I'm Mr. Tiananmen here in backwater Buffalo (which is nowhere near as backwater as where I really live), and here's this writer, Ha Jin, whose prominence descends in some sense from his refusal to re-enter his homeland after those horrific events back in 1989. And I saw at least three people I'd led on trips to China, and it was as if I didn't exist.

Sure, I look a lot different now than I did way back then. I'm older, heavier and have no hair. And the fact is, I'm plenty embarrassed to say, that I'm too shy to walk up and say hi to important people even when I know them pretty well. I really am, which is a little bit strange coming from a guy who lets his ass hang out all over the Internet. But they say the actors who get up on stage - a lot of them - are shy too. Although I couldn't really imagine myself in Ha Jin's place in front of all those people.

And then there's the fact that Ha Jin not only can write, but really works at it, and seems to have mastered absolutely everything his audience has mastered, and can make funny jokes right in front of that huge crowd, even speaking a language which was never native for him. 

So, in that sense, I'm glad that my crazy grandiose fantasies of winning the actual lottery have about as much chance of panning out as that Large Hadron Collider now has of running.

So, is it gonna actually fire up and get the experiments done?

I should leave things right there, which with my sick sense of humor, would be a pretty funny place to leave things, but I still feel kind of funny about this whole thing. I mean, I have no business acting as if people didn't recognize me. I've been hiding out for what, maybe 18 years now? I mean how would anyone who thought they knew me even open up a conversation? And how would I respond? (that's my excuse for being Mr. Shy).

"Um, well, yeah, see, I don't really know what I'm doing or where I'm going or where I'm going to live." Even the bartender at the really cool and openminded place right around the corner from where I live was taken aback by that comment. I mean he really seemed stunned and thrown for a loop, and you'd think bartenders, almost by definition, are pretty laid back about such things. Living by their wits and watching lots of crazy people do lots of crazy things. My friend and I left when things were starting to hop. Around here, the bars don't really come to life until well after midnight, since they stay open until 4 AM, and, well, we're pretty lightweight . . .

So, that's my idea of winning the lottery. I wonder what yours is? Are you living on today's page, or some fantasy page you just can't wait to arrive at? What corners would you cut to get there? If you're a scientist and some crazy creationist steals your files and finds the smoking gun that you called him crazy, does that make you guilty of conspiracy? We're only negotiating price here folks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dreams of an Information Economy

As tired as I am, from driving down to NYC and back to retrieve my daughter for Thanksgiving, I thought I might try tired-writing as a kind of antidote to breathless reaches for clarity which just become way too dense. There's lots of time while driving to think, and thinking goes away real quickly for me unless I do something with it.

It strikes me that there are two distinct poles to writing, the one narrative, and the other poetic. Narrative, for the most part, seems premised on movement from start to finish. In it's most breathless page-turning form (Harlequin romance, say) the reader wants to know what will happen next, and once the reader knows, there's no point in looking back to the beginning. It's done, it's finished, satisfying or not.

Poetic forms also move forward, but toward a fullness which might also reward rereading; going back to get the nuance which wasn't clear until the shape becomes complete. Really nice poetic forms reward almost endless re-reading to the point, so difficult for me, of memorization and full internalization.

These poles in writing have often been related to essential differences between China and the West. The Chinese sense of history moves in cycles, always touching back to home base, not moving toward any sort of culmination.

Western history, of course, wants conclusion, apocalyptic if at all possible, although one has to wonder what there would be then to keep the pages, so to speak or write or say, turning. What might perfect immortality feel like? Sounds pretty boring to me, I have to confess.

Of course I worry about immortalists, whether religious or technophilic. They always end up wanting to kill people who get in the way of their fantasies, and I surely want to get in the way. In general, people kill and harm for fantasies. In fact, what else would they do that for? Riches, a chance at being the first, a chance at heaven. Frankly, it all sickens me a bit.

Of course, I've construed my life so that I have no particular desire for outcomes in any particular direction. I've done the boat thing, the motorcycle thing, the rumpus room sex thing. Now I just want love and to stop "the world" from going over the edge. You should try it actually. It has more to recommend it than you might think.

Hey, I'm not dead yet. I get the attraction of hot cars, hot women, big houses, but I don't think it's worth investing all that much hope and effort in. Jaded maybe? Discouraged? I don't actually think so. I've never felt happier.

There's plenty of evidence now that folks who win the lottery end up really dreadfully unhappy, commit suicide more often than their peers, and just in general don't do so well as you and I are certain we would do.

Women being told it's not cost effective to screen for breast cancer every year are getting angry that somehow they will be cheated out of a chance to live a longer life. The lottery "winners" are trotted out now for their angry outrage that if they hadn't been tested, they would have died. Which, statistically, is pretty much like saying if you don't play, you can't win. Which is just a ploy to get people emotionally involved in magical thinking.

Play numbers which come up during the day, or in a Chinese fortune cookie! Maybe they're a sign or something. Play a hunch. A feeling. There's near certainty that everyone who plays the numbers has some story so that whoever wins will fuel the flames of certainty that you should too.

I think I'm going to do a little test here. I'm going to buy my very first lottery ticket. Maybe it's the second, but I know it can't be the third. I can guarantee that I won't win, but the trouble is that I can also guarantee that these efforts at writing will reach nearly no-one.

I reside somewhere too much in no-man's land, between the realm of art and science, and those who read me for a literary bent can't abide the narcissism and lack of editorial inputs. Those who read for more engineering sense can't deal with the art. So, it goes, well, pretty much nowhere.

And yet I think there are important things in the balance. Reconstruings to bring lots of believers in various fantasies back down to earth, where they might be inclined to do less harm. Less inclined to do harm.

If these angry demanders of yearly mammography would calm down and learn the science, they might realize that while they should feel free to spend this money themselves if it makes them feel better, it really isn't sensible to spend from the common pool, which is what insurance is supposed to provide.

Crazy people everywhere should feel free to burn their money on lottery tickets, if they can get some clear and present warm fuzzies from doing so, but we shouldn't be encouraging such behaviors.

And people who think that a bigger house or a faster car or a hotter woman will make them really happy - even the ones who aren't tempted to cheat or overlook the harm that might be caused along the way toward those destinations, maybe should be left alone, except that the planet is melting down in chasing after all this want.

Happiness seems to come from accepting who and where and what you are. There could be a kind of education leading up to this wisdom, but the workings of our economy demand something different. Somewhere along the way, want has become need has become murderous demand. And it really is murderous, simply because no one can provide any assurance that life can be any good without the achievement of these goals, and so against despair, we just go for it, and go and go and go.

And the ones who get pretty close report that it feels pretty darned good up at those heights. No one complains about the hot stuff, until it gets old, at which point they just turn it in for something newer.

Well, apart from smart grids and smart energy, the information economy would also let people know that there is absolutely nothing to be gained from living your life on the next page. Life is here and now.  I'd better hurry. I just found out that the NYS Lottery is bigger than ever! Bye now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Emotional Pair-a-dice

You will know by now that I have some interest in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. You will also know that I am interested in random as something other from meaningless. And you will know that I have, therefore, an interest in the random evolutionary connections which lead to our existence being construed as something other from happenstance. My model is pretty much identical to my hope that the connections along my family's gene-line narrative were loving for the most part. The story holds together better that way. But you can make your own story out of thin air too!

Inevitably, I have been more than a little bit intrigued by well-qualified physicists suggesting that the strange accidents which have befallen the CERN supercollider might just be at that intersection between fate and our attempts to tempt it by teasing out the final particle which can only exist under conditions much closer toward the Big Bang than most of us would like to get.

They are doing the math, these mavericky physicists, and suggesting that if there is an actual way to insert a random wild-card into the planning process, then we should by all means do it. They even demonstrate why this is a way to improve the odds for getting valuable information back; regardless of the results of both the Hadron Collider successfully firing up, or it's being called off because some incredibly improbable roll of some dice said it should be!

Either way, we get more information than we would without inserting this wild card into the control mechanisms. We learn if we are tempting fate, I believe is what they're saying. And we can improve our modelling of the physical universe, even if the machine fails to fire up! Because if the impossibly improbable actually happens, and the wild-carding calls off the show, then we will have to consider that fact carefully before we spend a few more billions of dollars and kilowatts to try it all over again. We might even want to look a little harder in other directions for theoretical models of actual physics.

Of course, these guys are being ridiculed right out of the scientific community, and the prospects for actually inserting their wild card into the decision tree over at CERN are about the same as those for a bird to drop a baguette flake into the power station and bring down the entire operation. Which, um, did actually happen, by the way. But in operations this complex, if it wasn't a bird it would be something else, so that silly event proves absolutely nothing. I think that's what these scientists would also say.

So, you also know that my problem with machine intelligence is very simple, trivial and easy to understand. It comes down to random again. Consider how likely it is that an airplane builder could be convinced to include in her design some random factor, like a pair of dice being thrown automatically, which would, upon the incredibly unlikely event of say seven sevens in a row, cause the plane to self destruct.

That would be insane, and no-one would ever do it. Because we can calculate to some degree of incredible precision that after x number of flights there is near inevitability that one will crash. Perhaps, as a joke, it could be done if the probabilities were far enough out there, but even then, just like that Soviet end-game machine recently unveiled, it would seem incredibly irresponsible. I guess the reason they set it up in Russia was because they didn't trust the human side of their decision tree, so they wanted to inhibit the guys with the buttons.

Still, people fly planes knowing that there remains a certainty that accidents will happen. You have to build them to fly forever, though, and then, well kind of cross your fingers that at least the design isn't, hopefully, too fatally flawed. I, for one, am way more comfortable in a plane than driving my own car, and I'm a really good driver. But there's a lot more random out on that road.

Machines just can't do random. They don't do random. It would be incredibly irresponsible to program random into them, especially if our life depends on them.

Of course, people do random, which makes us pretty dangerous. We sometimes even take the pilot's seat after a drink, or watch our laptops when the landing strip is passing by. Among all the fly-by possibilities which our brain picks up from the world around us, most would agree that it's emotion which pikks (sic) up the ones you pay attention to.

And random would be fine among machines, so long as there were other machines to restrict the craziness. That's why they pull my Mom off to the side at the Peace Bridge when she goes into Canada. They're gathering data, by random selection, so that the humans won't be left alone to read her sweet face and get fooled. So, it might be smart to program in random just to get things going, say to call an airplane in for servicing, if never for it to self destruct.

But emotion has been paradigmatically (I use the term advisedly) banned from science, pretty much in the exact same way that random has. Whatever else is true, the "truths" which can be revealed by the scientific method exclude anything which is emotionally tainted.

To me, that's very much like the serpent which powers itself by eating its tail (I usually like to misspell tale here, but I'm giving you a break, remember?). You just simply can't get away from random. But you can say that there is a sane way to use random and an insane way.

And at is very fringiest remove from everyday life, the term emotion also has validity to very precisely the same extent that the term "particle" can have any validity at all in the "hard" science of physics. Where Schoedinger's cat is either alive or dead until you take a peek. Where a "particle" is about as hard as Joan Baez' voice.

I'm just sayin'

OK, off to roll the dice on the highways . . .



Just randomly now, the surveyors are here to line up my land. The guy looks like a hillbilly, but thinks like a physicist. He explained how he would surely know if I'd been playing with the marker posts, and why they wouldn't just simply update their last survey (saving suspicious me a ton of money), and how the conspiracy among satellites and laser distance measurements, mathematically corrected for perfect level, keep things a lot better in line than they used to be.

So, I'm kind of curious to hang around until he's finished. And then to tramp the land I'm about to leave, to find out really what I used to sort-of own. (a fiction the banking system allows me to believe)

Which gives me just another minute here to finish this silly tale. In some sense, that airplane I've been talking about depends on the goodwill of every single player along its line of assembly. And, let's hope, every single player is also subject to a lot of fail-safes, redundancies, and double-checks.

And at the end, the company builds its reputation on the safety of its planes. And still, if we're like Fox TV, we like to point out all the ways in which our interests aren't being taken into any consideration at all. And we end up preferring stupid people who look good and pretend to be like us to the smart people who we fear might be gaming us with their tricky language. Double *sigh*.

Going with your gut is great for deciding when to hit the road, and who to love. Not so hot for making really important decisions, right? But at the fringes of everything we do, it's still an emotional roll of the dice.

And, well, I'm just hoping we never depend on a machine, or machine-like thinking, to do our decidering for us.

Will machines ever think?

I'm hoping there will be a little bit of caring in the decision too, and not too much passing it off to fictional Jesus. Nor, for that matter to some roll of dice that technology will come around and do our thinking for us. Or make it just that easy to act like greedy selfish tycoons, each and every one of us.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Contact! PoMo AI (Artificial Intelligence)

This is yet another one of those quick bury that post! posts. Not that I find anything wrong with what I most recently wrote, but it is rather breathless, and I need to put my thinking back up on its shelf for my private inspiration. Perhaps that's where it belongs. I think lots of people looking for direction have these moments of private inspiration which provide it for them. Mine just happened to be in words.

So, that's my theme for today. After which I'll go back to writing about male vibrators and other silly things. My theme is writing, language, and artificial intelligence. My thinking about it relates most to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, only in the sense that the reader is forced to leave the whole big question wide open, where it remains today, riding on top of the fairly complete incompleteness theorem. I know the book is old school, but I can't find anything to change the basics.

In fact most debates about AI still include this basic difference - it's almost a predilection - between whether in principle this will always be an open question, or if things can lead to closure. I am pretty sure we're not going to see until we see, so it will remain for me a fairly uninteresting matter of the limits to abstraction. And I'm just not sure how the limits to abstraction can represent the limits to reality.

But in the particular, I am fairly certain that humans, as the only example ready to hand, never did think until language developed. Specifically, I mean that what we call intelligence is no property of mind alone, but is rather a property of minds together, in communication. I suppose therefore that intelligence would have to be called an epiphenomena of the brain, rather than something which inheres in it.

Now I understand fully that there are lots of people much smarter than me who study this stuff every day as their professional, vocational, and passion-filled occupation. They study all these things to the point of tedium, and I respect their studies, I really do. They have what I don't, a collegial (or not) set of fellow workers, all of whom share a common language. They share a common vocabulary and grammar for usage, and they have developed that language collectively so that they may push its envelope of sense.

That gives them the ability, far superior to mine, to throw terms around like "epiphenomena" and be pretty sure they know what they are talking about. If I have any advantage at all, it is because I am not embedded in any particular school of thought, and so I might see things which can't be seen from the inside. A kind of forest/trees issue. The naked emperor story.

But I do understand that I too must make clear sense, which as I've said I really pushed the edge of myself in that last post.

I am among those people who are fairly certain that we will never find any fairy dust in the brain. No matter how you think intelligence works, there isn't any mysterious substance or structure or pineal-type organ which has yet to be revealed which gives the brain its spark. Such thinking harkens back to talk of "soul", toward which I hope my training in Chinese traditions has hardened me a bit. I prefer to use less mysterious terms like heart or center.

So, therefore, I am also on the side of those who figure sure, why not, we can create an artificial brain. I don't think it will have very much to do with computers as we now use that term, but there is incredibly interesting research being done on neural network style computing. Quantum processing and massively parallel processing will come on line to make our current megahertz seem paltry. And these will also begin to break down the limitations of boolean and digital logic.

Computers, therefore, or machines, or artificial brains, may even be able to deal with metaphor, and therefore start to feel. But not until or before they develop language, which means that they too must distinguish each from the other, and have something to say to one another.

Right now, we might think of such arrangements as a matter of networks and signals passing back and forth. But no thinking, no intelligence, will come from such communication, which is the thing I want to stake a claim on here and now.

When writing first started, I think it might be fairly clear that it was a matter of keeping score. You know, those hash marks with a line through them which count to digital "five". Four score and so forth equals, um, 20? No, they get bunched in fours, so 80! Lines on a stick, soon followed in the case of China, with cracks on shells and trying to bring some of the constancy of heaven's patterns down to earth where we could make sense of them. Looking for signs.

But let's dwell on the counting for a minute. Scores or counts can always only refer to undifferentiated and therefore, for memory purposes, identical items. If you want to know how many sheep you bought or sold, the score can pretty much only tell you the count, and nothing more than that. If you need to know the colors, you'd have to split the count into color categories, or add something to the hashmarks.

And if you want to remember individual sheep, you'd have to give them a name.

I've said before that the only kind of memory which endures is ways of knowing. Once you identify a shape, for instance, it's hard to unlearn what that shape means, if it means something to those around you. It's very hard to forget a face if it has a familiar name to go with it. But if you're going to partake in community, then you have to learn to recognize and to name those things which you will use in common. I think in some sense that's what language means.

I have three cats, and I don't think it would be too easy for me to forget what a cat is, or to recognize one at a thousand paces. Maybe in the dark, I might mistake a racoon for one. But I confess that I don't always recognize which is which. They're all from the same litter, after all.

Oh sure, one seems to have a different father, and so Stella's easy to distinguish from the rest. But at a distance, there seem to be many many Stella's out there. And her two sisters look pretty much alike. But if I pause, and sorry to say I actually have to dredge my memory, I can remember which one has the orange eartips, and call up their proper names.

I know that makes me a lousy cat lover, and that many of you would distinguish one among a thousand without any thought at all. But I doubt you're using more than just their faces, which, no matter how much you love cats, are nowhere near so expressive as the human face is.

Yeah, sure I've seen all those cute pictures of cats dressed up and seeming to have expression. I've also read Oliver Sacks about how humans can fail with facial recognition, or even mistake their wife for a hat, and still control their language. But exceptions often prove the rule. If nothing else, the biological human "machine" is immensely redundant and malleable. There are even perfectly conscious humans who were born with only one half of a functioning brain.

But I do think that before we can create our own machines that think, they will have to be distinguished enough, one from the other, so that they actually do have something to say and aren't just part of one big artificial brain. You might wonder if I read too much science fiction, to which I'd have to answer, no, I don't think I read enough. Even when I seem to write too fast. There's only so much time in the day after all, and I don't read as fast as a lot of people seem to, and frankly, the science fiction isn't always the most interesting stuff.

One big brain, no matter how big, really can't think. And machines which are isomorphic compatible - think armies of droids in some Hollywood thrilla - down to the level of their design specs, by definition, won't have anything to say to one another.

Well, until they build up differential experiences. But here already a time lag is essential. That's what differential experience means. And so there has to be a going apart and a coming back together, rather than the near instantaneous communication we expect from our computer networks.

So, they have to be autonomous, these thinking machines, and they have to be distinguishable each from the other when they return for communication. Perhaps they can wear the scars from their experiences.

The trouble with wearing the scars from their experiences is that they only get them after separation, and so there can be no recognition upon return because, just like Dad's memory now, it's all new!

So, the separation has to move in stages, building difference, building recognition, until you get something like a face emerging on each machine. There has to be something familiar before re-cognition can occur.

Sure, you could seriallize all the machines with numbers. That would be a perfectly good way to distinguish each machine. Except numbers, remember, don't do anything but count sameness. Like with my cats, you'd have to look up in your memory banks which is which, and again like with my cats, it has to beg the question about how much you really care.

Now caring, of course, is not often considered to be a quality of machines. But what else would it be to direct attention inward toward memory, as it were, unless some wired-in compulsion to do so. Which brings us right back to the beginning all over again, with everyone - every machine - now pretty much acting like every other.

You could catalog which machine cares for which other in some kind of giant sorting game, but it would seem pretty far from what we mean by thinking  pretty quickly. More like a flock of birds or school of fish.

I think brain science has already determined pretty convincingly that our inward brain often makes decisions before our conscious self is aware that we "have" them. We also know that we process much more information than we could possibly be consciously aware of. Emotions seem to play a role here too, sorting among all the inward random brain impressions, to bring to the fore those which interest us. Those which might prove to be of some use, pretty much in the same way as those named shapes which we use together with our community.

And the community in the first place only works together because of some sort of caring. Some facial recognition, maybe, tying family members together more easily than a branding system. Sure, plenty of exceptions prove this rule, but I think you get the idea. And collections of families are also bound by familiar behaviors and traditions - things held in collective memory.

Eventually, this collective memory gets written down, and civilizations can endure, some few as long as China has. Although to call China China all through those years might be a matter of splitting some interesting hairs, since about the only thing that's remained constant has been the written language itself. And that took a whole lot of draconian diligence, and an almost obsessive concern with how history gets told and poetry crafted.

So, I'll leave it there, then. I'll hope to come back for the sake of amusing trifles now and then. In the meantime, I really must get to work cleaning out my house for the next guy.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Breaking Water - Tsunami of Possibility Waves

After so many years of haphazard looking, I finally find a guy who understands and can explain Bayesian Statistics, and he won't even give me the time of day! Well, I'm used to that, so no hurt feelings. I thought I gave a pretty cogent explanation about how the basic principles work, but I think my writeup is in the realm of dangerous for the masses, who might make all sorts of wrong conclusions from it.

The same guy also wrote up a great explanation about why quantum physical understandings of the world say utterly nothing about how the person doing various kinds of experiments is implicated in their results. I've been looking for that one since just about forever too, and thank goodness I've finally found it. I've been getting a little bit tired myself with all sorts of pretty smart people getting all excited about how our state of knowing is implicated in what it is we know.

Well, maybe it is, but only at the very fringes of reality, as in you might be the guy who set up the experiment, and maybe there had to be a reason for you to want to do that, but the results of the experiment don't implicate you. That's what science means.

Except that now here I am writing all these posts, pretty much the way John Cage used to compose music, just letting in random things which are happening all around me. Now since I'm a fan of Julian Jaynes' psychology, you'll have to expect that for me this kind of random is akin to hearing the voice of God. And, well, it is, kind of sort of, for so long as you don't think I mean that literally, the way Jaynes kind of sort of did.

Julian Jaynes, you may recall, is among a small cadre of smart people who actually understand that consciousness, as in the sense of "I", could not have pre-existed language and culture, no matter how ready the brain might have been, and specifically that the sides of the brain didn't get "broken down" until the written word took hold. He actually provides a read of historical evidence which is not too disimilar to what I'm trying to do with scientific evidence from physics, which allows lots of otherwise sketchy detail to fall right into place.

He pins the great event right at about time of Christ, which makes a nice pun if you consider the meaning of the cross and crossroads and even the Chinese number for ten, which is just a cross and has absolutely no meaning here except for random digits. We don't have to be too precise, since you could sweep up all those great seminal philosophies and philosophers from about the same rough period. Within a probability cloud around two thousand years ago, say.

Jaynes supposes, again with some evidence, that people would actually hear a voice inside their heads, rendering for them the collective imperatives which would keep them in line with one another. A kind of pre-conscious conscience, which Jaynes supposed might have been construed as the voice of the gods, or eventually the voice of God. It explains a lot of the cruel practices marked down in the Old Testament. Things we'd never do, like shun people or sleep with relatives, or murder our children. Really nasty stuff that we have laws for, and more humane reactions.

And I know Neal Stephenson riffs on this a lot, although his books start to read for me like too much time on computer adventure games, but his earlier stuff practically drips with Jaynesian thinking. So I can't be the only one out there who groks this idea, although the mainstream scientific community doesn't seem to find it very useful. Jaynes gets a kind of drive-by mention in Richard Dawkin's book, though.

So my buddy and I are trying to spin up, against all sorts of improbability, since we don't have the multiple millions it takes for most Internet startups to even fail. But just like writing this, it seems worth the risk. OK, I'm not risking very much, and neither is pikk, but the upside is pretty huge. So, like they say over there at the oh-so-evil New York Lottery, "hey, you never know".

Except you do with the lottery, and only stupid people would play it. In fact, it's pretty much a stupid tax, which is the only justification I can think of for the government stooping that low. But then that makes our friendly gov. pretty much like my beloved credit card companies, which find my unemployment good reason to raise my rates.

Yeah, sure I know all the reasons, since I'm that much more a risk now. Except, in a Bayesian sense, I'm really not, and they're just gaming my damned system, and, well, there really oughta be a law!

Oh, I guess there is a law, and they're just getting their diggs in (sic) before it clicks into place. My timing always sucks. I'm selling my house just when the buyer can get all my value, part from the government stimulus, and part from the fact that the stimulus isn't going to anyone who doesn't already have a down-payment, so there are no first-time buyers, which is like a Catch-22 against me all over again. So the price is way below what it should be, and I get hit once as taxpayer and again as seller. And we never even had a bubble around here, from which the price might have fallen! No damned fair!

Don't get me wrong, I like the guy who's buying my house, and don't begrudge him a nickel, but I'm just saying.

The reason the credit card company is acting badly is because they already know all about me. I have a long long history, and I've never defaulted on any debts. But they're treating me as though I'm just another person without a down-payment who can be preyed on. It seems we've had a run on that kind of predatory behavior lately!

In essence, that's what Bayesian statistics is all about. It's even behind the medical community finally waking up that massive testing for breast cancer has almost no impact on survivability rates below a certain age. We'll be getting a lot more wake-up calls like that one, as we continue to try to disentangle greed from want and need. Come to think of it, my friendly non-reader also helped me to understand that right before the medical establishment figured it out. Some coincidence if you ask me!

I'm not about to make any hay out of that, although I got my title today "Breaking Water" from my early morning fear that my water heater was about to burst and flood my basement which in my house would be a real pain, since the "basement" is where I sit right now. It's a split level.

And a friend of mine (see sweetie, I'm backing off here) who's much more responsible than I am is getting hers replaced prophylactically, which makes me realize what a slouch I am. And I'm really hoping that it doesn't break before the house sells, since you know, the credit card companies are already on my case and all. Maybe they know me better than I do. Hmmm.

But for me breaking water reminds me of giving birth which reminds me of breaking out of cocoons. So I had to use it; the title I mean.

But what else are we to draw our writing from? You can claim to be all organized, but in the end, if you're doing quantum physical experiments, like that huge crowd of brainiacs over there at CERN, each one of you still has a whole personal narrative of strange, random and unaccountable happenings which made you what you are.

So what, you might say, there's no meaning to all that stuff? It's just random! Or maybe not. I guess it's what you make of it that counts.

Here's where the going gets rough again, for which I apologize in advance. But at least there won't be any math, so you can thank me for that. Although it loses me my very best readers. The trouble is this dog's just plain too old to learn new tricks. I left math behind when I turned down MIT and CalTech (I know, it's disgusting, but I have to name drop or I won't get anywhere at all) in favor of a shot at the ruling class at Yale, and well, as you can see the ruling class turned me down pretty flat and for damned good reason, so there you go again and again and again. But I keep taking my shots!

So yesterday, I took a stab at explaining "possibility waves," an analog of the probability waves which define all you can know about subatomic particles' momentum or position before they get detected.

Possibility waves are something I just invented out of thin air, so to speak, but you'll see that there is actually an ironical reason to do so. Since I did make the claim yesterday that things in motion relative to one another are actually quite impossible if you think about it. It's a paradoxical consequence of various Einsteinian discoveries, which is damned inconvenient. It's the paradox part which makes it so inconvenient.

And obviously nobody can get their head around things in motion relative to one another being impossible, since we all move around, and we're hardly impossible to one another, right? But we're only talking fringe science here, and not something you really have to worry about in real life.

In fringe science - you know the avant garde, the cutting edge - they talk about "many worlds" of all things, and even give that theory high marks compared to other theories. Many worlds even solves the problem for you and me, since for sure I don't have any idea what you're thinking right now.

But I'm not saying things are literally impossible, only that there might be something which pops them right out from physical nothingness, and that that something is also perfectly analogous to detection in the realm of what collapses probability waves into actual particles.

Now some people mistakenly think that there has to be some mind-controlled instrumental detection to make probability waves collapse into actual particles, but, yep you guessed it, my good non-friend puts the lie to that one too. It's the particles themselves, kind of rubbing off on one another which keep them each from filling up the entire cosmos with their conceptual wave-forms. Sort of like those cellular automata I was talking about the other day, and which also get passing reference in the above referenced article.

This makes it incredibly unlikely to the point of vanishing infinity that you'll find a particle emitted over here way way over there where you don't expect it. Of course the point of vanishing infinity is pretty hard to distinguish from the point of impossibility.

But, as you know these particles can't be distinguished from one another anyhow. They have no actual identity, unless you're an AI guy in in which case you might think maybe someday they might have. But that seems pretty unlikely to me, its having already been proven to my satisfaction that these subatomics are all anonymous. You have no way to know if the one you detected over here started its life, so to speak, way way over there. Except for the limiting effect of the speed of light, which would make it, well, impossible.

So you pretty much take it on faith, according to the known laws of the universe that there are limits to where a particle can be found, and that these limits are expressed by the probability waves which can be calculated to a pretty tight limit of precision. Tighter than just about anything else in physics, actually, such that if you could actually hurl something without interference you could almost hit an atom in Silicon Valley from here using that kind of aiming precision.

That's better than even GPS can do, but that would be another meaningless digression into smart bombs and things like the Chinese written form of the number ten. Sorry. It's probably just that two hands together equals ten, and crossing fingers, one from each hand like they do in China to show "ten", makes a pretty neat shorthand. No coincidence at all, see, except in the evolutionary sense of how come we don't have a different number, which is a pretty meaningless question if you understand digital math. (I still count on my fingers, in my head)

Anyhow, just as with perceived or detected particles, there has to be some ongoing exchange of force-carrying or force-defining (take your pikk) particles for these other particles to remain in proximity to one another - that's what force means after all; the glue to hold it all together - so there must be something in the conceptual realm before detection to keep the impossible and the possible from jumping apart altogether.

It's the thing which holds things which aren't physically connected actually together in one conceptual space. In our world, you can think of this like gravity, which keeps your feet on the ground and your head out of the clouds if you use it right. And it's actually pretty darned hard to use wrong, if you've ever tried flying, for instance. Which I for one would never do without an airplane.

Of course, of course, there's no such thing as physical connection. That's just a fiction we live with in the macro world when we tie things down, or nail them together or otherwise tangle them up in one another. Down at the level of the subatomic real world, it's all just probability clouds and forces.

And the same thing happens with things in motion relative to one another. They stay in touch with an exchange of particles too. The same forces, the same way, making it necessary to expend all the force - read energy expenditure - in the entire cosmos to move something up to the actual limiting speed of light. At which point you're back to a single something filling up the entire cosmos, pretty much like back at the Big Bang.

At which, this speed of light limit, well you become pretty much impossible to me, and the exchange just stops. Which is pretty much how these force carrying particles feel about one another. They're not even possible. Or to put it another way, this being yet another distinction without any difference, any one is the same as any other, and how would they know who's who or what's what?

I'm a brrroken hearted doicher (spelling is for pronunciation purposes)
vot's filled mit greef and shame
I tell you vot der trrruuble is
I doesn't know mine name.

Mine mudder, she had two leetle boys
Dey vas me and mine brudder
Ve looked so very much alike
No one knew vich from t'udder

Vell, one of us got dead
Ya, mein herr, dat is so
But vedder Hans or Yocub (Jacob)
Mine mudder, she don't know

And so I am in trrrubbles;
I can't get dru mine head
Vedder I'm Hans vot's living
Or Yocub vot is dead.

Silly silly. I don't mean that the particles do any knowing. Just that you can't have any two of them in relative motion greater than the speed of light, but since again by definition they do actually move at the speed of light because what else could light speed be if not the speed of a photon. The trick being that the photon is massless in motion, and so no laws get broken. I'm just tossing terms around here, so give me a break if you want to get all technical about what has mass and what doesn't. The principle still holds.

So here comes my punch line, and you're really not going to like it, but what do you suppose the thing is which pulls these subatomics out from impossibility to possibility. It's perfectly analogous remember, to "detection" in the  realm of the physical. But here we're in the realm of the pre-detected conceptual. Here we're in the realm of the probability waves which can't be detected without collapsing them, just like Shroedinger's cat is neither alive nor dead until you take a look.

Guess what, hey, it's emotion. You can call it something else if you want, but emotion works just fine. There has to be a wanting for this impossibility to become quite possible. Notice the passive voice. I'm not saying who or what does the wanting. I'm just saying that it makes as nice a way to define connections among conceptual things as force does for connections among perceptual things.

There doesn't have to be any kind of knower, or thinker or feeler, any more than there has to be a detector for probability waves to get defined. I think some people once tried to define these conceptual particles as a species of quasi-particle or phonon, but they were from Italy and so no-one paid them any attention. You know those Italians, never taking no for an answer and so they just go on and do their own thing whether or not anyone's paying any attention.

Anyhow, you're allowed to carry information faster than the speed of light, which is what happens with quantum implication where you can know something over there just by detecting something over here, so long as they belong together by some kind of law, these two things. Well, calling them two in the first place is a kind of splitting hairs, but you get the idea.

So, that's about it, folks. You get pulled out of nothingness if you're wanted and otherwise you're just impossible. In physical terms, you won't be wanted unless and until some other particle goes missing, which falls right out from some principle about conservation of mass and energy. But in fact things are being created and destroyed all the livelong day, although you'd never know it, since at that scale these "things" are really neither here nor there.

So now go to and play around. We have no idea if anybody willl like it; if it's wanted in the cloud.  But hey, you never know, it might be. And if it is then all sorts of people will get confused by what I'm writing. And maybe, just maybe, one of them will actually get what I'm talking about and tell me where to get off.

Of course, I'm not getting off, since you can't go around crying wolf all the time and expect people to believe you the next time. No, I'll keep trying until someone sees the obvious: That no more can the Church fairly rely on Science (I hate using Caps like that, but I'm a conventional guy, and it seems to fit) to pin down the point of life's conception than can Science get away with calling religionists a bunch of fools who take things on faith when they don't need to. Since as everybody knows, the scientists all take what they know on faith too, until their probability waves collapse and things get reconfigured just like good ol' doubting Thomas Kuhn said they always would.

Knowing just keeps on going and going, and just won't stop. Well, I'll stop there then. 'til next time.