Friday, March 18, 2011

Paying for the Times

Of course you knew it was coming. While all news organizations have been carefully calibrating their strategies to deal with the burgeoning Internet, no organization has been more deliberate and thorough than the New York Times. They have enough cash and clout to have nurtured their "brand" across these long and scary years of freebie access, and now seem confident that they will be able to charge top dollar for web access without losing their spot.

The news comes at the very moment that public broadcasting is being nixed. So recently after the fortunes of public radio were boosted by the need for all of us commuters to be in some kind of reliable touch after the events of 9/11.

Crises have a way of ratcheting up the power of the powerful, while winnowing out the small fry. How many local news outlets will be able to charge a fee for online access now that the news-reading public might have to make budget decisions about how much news they can afford? And who can afford to be without access to reliable and vetted sources of information?

It is possible that the Times has miscalculated, and that their move will boost the power of blogger aggregaters like HuffPo, on the Google model of keyterm auctions to game your profile and free or slave-wage content provision. It's also possible that everything will go the way of Rupert Murdoch, where no holds are ever barred to gain audience share. What you mock on the entertainment side, where the apparently liberal politics of the Simpsons or Glee merge with that strange libertarian Howard Stern schlock humor, is balanced by what makes you angry on the NewsCorp side if you digest the news at all.

As quickly as we have all forgotten how essential the reliable reporting of NPR was during our national disaster, we have also forgotten pandemic fears from SARS or H5N1 (or was it H1N1, or was it avian or was it swine flu)? It all has something to do with China and their horrid public health standards, right? Or is it the fact that they have dismantled their social health network in the same kind of thoughtless imitation of our wild capitalism which has them buying more Buicks now than we do?

It could be that public health requires society-wide approaches to healthcare now more than ever. It could be that flood and earthquake insurance should not be allowed brokerage on the open market, since those companies drag their feet or declare bankruptcy anyhow when the disaster is broad enough. Government political swings almost guarantee moral hazard, even as they insure that only those too big to fail will be protected against failure because the only safe bet is to go as big as you can as fast as you can.

* * *

Microsoft rolls out IE9. At first blush it hangs for me and so I'm back to Chrome. But their Windows Live services start to look and feel and behave with a little bit more slick compared to the hacker feel of Google. Bing has fit and finish, as the Internet turns away again from wildness. I'm having Bigness Blues.

Let's hope the Times will also flesh back out its news rooms and its international bureaus and that it will act in the public interest because that's what the lettered elite who form its main readership will demand. There are distinct advantages to not pandering to the unwashed masses the way that Fox does, albeit in the interests of the same economic ranks those Times elites belong to.

I for one would love for actual leadership to replace the purely moneyed definitions which now seem to have the monopoly on determination of who's elite and who's the hoi polloi. But leadership depends on trust and a servant mentality from the top. Our market structures presume that we should mistrust our leadership, especially now that our leadership is marketed too.

I'll pay for the Times sure, just like I'll pay for PBS. But I do have to say that I'd prefer that we all share the costs. For reasons of our public safety and our public health and our public rhetoric and the relative safety and peacefulness of our public squares, I certainly prefer that we work to decrease rather than to exacerbate the divide in means between the have-it-alls and the have-almost-nothings.

And it doesn't help that we export so much of our grey to China. I look forward to technologies which really do green the entire globe. Which instead of nuclear power-plants, make it attractive for us to mine our extravagant wattage waste in favor of less bloated bodies and homes. But that also will depend on public moneys being drawn away from subsidies to Big Oil and Big Corn and Soy.

It's a worrisome time right now. We're all going to end up paying for these times. That's the only certainty.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Borders on my Mind

Not the closing bookstore, or the  political boundaries around a state, but the larger concept; that thing which defines the inside and the outside of me, or the sense and the nonsense of constructed narratives. Sanity, insanity, sensory deprivation, the supernatural and the natural. Fiction and history That kind of thing.

If I neglect diligence in locking my doors, I'm a fool. If you open them, you're still a criminal regardless of how hard it was to do so. If a nation succeeds in the internalization of walls, the way the Chinese have, or the way that each of us individually does when we inhabit the fiction of our unitary, authentic self, then the walls can dissolve again to the level of symbolic. I belong, therefore I am.

Walls as tourist attractions, like the great wall of China, or the sexy skin of one of Charlie Sheen's porn star buddies, refocus the self on the inside as one who wants to conform and lay claim to pride of place. The perceived need to build robust real walls, or to buff out or to clothe the physical self, announce the invisibility or transparency of any and all shared definition. To be willingly naked is to trust in consciously shared boundaries, maybe. Let's not be silly.

Graffiti, or punk-style, or, once upon a time, rock and roll, define these boundaries by challenging them to make them visible and opaque. I can punk my way into your screen, and I might become an anonymous superstar, and then because you know me too well, I will no longer know myself. No wonder superstars take drugs. Alternate between sunglasses and outrageous designer statements.

We need walls along the border with Mexico because we are ambivalent in almost all of our collective actions about who should be in and out. Rhetorically, we agree, but in practice, build the wall since we can't contain ourselves! Clothe the naked body, and if necessary make it uniform which makes it hot for some people. Weird!

F-bombs bleeped out routinely on public channels (although I thought I'd paid for them) announce some walls I just can't find, and when they joke freely about threesomes and the actors act without shame I'm thinking maybe we've already been transported back to the border-less world of Eden, but nobody told me. It just doesn't feel like paradise.

Who was the nutjob who thought we could contain nuclear reactions anyhow, or is it simply our Grand Narrative which also allows no real distinction between truth and fiction if you spread it on a timeline. That center of opinion has been swinging wildly even in my own mind, if I can call that "in."

Have you ever experienced a muscle twitch, acting all on its own without your conscious intervention intention? Just now, it felt as though someone was poking me in the side, but no-one was. Rebellion, like Charlie Sheen in need of help, feels dangerous if it gets out of hand. Bring in the tanks, the tranquilizers, the muscle relaxants.

Oh, how I do envy those of you who inhabit your life's mission and are glad for it. If you stick to it, you'll accomplish something. You have a mission as a scholar or a musician or a dancer or a worker-bee, but you have a mission and you've found a way to pay for it.

I have a string of jobs. My mission is hopeless.

Meanwhile, I continue to navigate the divide between literate culture in China and over here. What I find most interesting at the moment is how differently the Chinese written form mediates between machine and human forms.

Machines represent strict cause and effect and therefore exclude serendipity except by design. Once they build themselves as 'games of life' from mathematical primitives, they will be proper life forms, but not so useful for that. Well, I mean not so immediately trustworthy, the way that machines are as perfect slaves.

The Chinese written form encodes radically fewer sound morphemes than does English, for example. Although by the laws linguistics as I understand them, it must be, in principle, possible to speak the written language with full fidelity, in practice there is just so much more history to the visual forms than is the case with alphabetic and phonetically transcribed languages.

Sure, our spelling "system" (unsystem?) preserves much of a word's history, but there is a certain kind of compactness to written Chinese which pretty much reserves full literacy to those who have mastered great bodies of textual context. You can look up words in dictionaries, but you are much more likely to require an index of actual usage.

Because each written graph can be represented by no more than one vowel sound  (although the number of distinct vowel sounds is enhanced by meaningfully different intonations), plus perhaps a leading consonant, a string of opening sounds can be sufficient for the computer to render up an entire multi-graph word or phrase.

Using the sounds of the characters, plus a computer tabulation of the likely combinations, one can get radically more complexity from rather fewer keystrokes. I imagine it's about like what a court reporter can get from essentializing the sounds of English to some set of single-impact keystroke combinations.

The more one relies on the computer to interpret phonetic references, the more faded-memory distance one develops from the "original" calligraphic form. (I use quotes since the calligraphic form was itself an elaboration or simplification of earlier forms, whether made by stylus or knife or something else)

It seems uncontroversial that written language is the sine-qua-non for consciousness. OK, it's controversial, but I take it as settled fact. For sure, it's the sine-qua-non for civilization and what Foucault calls the entry into history of humanity.

It's also common place enough to understand that thought (if there is such a thing) is the innering of dialogic habits accomplished between and among minds, but also mediated through texts. Reading was once done aloud, and neurological experiments demonstrate that those regions of our brain are still exercised while reading to oneself.

A general fallacy still has currency that Chinese is written with "ideographs" which would mean, essentially, that there is no mediation by the as-if sounds of spoken language. In its extreme manifestations, this fallacy would have it that the "idea" of a word's meaning makes it directly into the mind of the reader. I take it that neurological testing, while uncovering interesting differences in the precise regions of the brain activated, affirms the commonality among all written languages, graphic or phonetic.

Readers of Chinese also internalize at least pseudo soundings-out. I say pseudo, since one of the attractions of the notion of ideographs is that the same written system has been used by mutually unintelligible natural languages. If one is in the habit of supposing abstraction to be a method to resolve differences in particulars, then one naturally supposes that what's "meant" is what is read, rather than the sound of the word.

But it would seem that abstraction of that sort takes place outside the brain, at least, if not outside the mind. The meaning is a communal creation, shared by sense-makers and never quite abstract-able from spoken language.

Until early in the twentieth century, Chinese of whatever dialectical origin always used a highly formalized written language which would itself be recognized as distinct from the normal manner of speaking of any language group. Self-consciousness of this distinction is long-standing in China, and was crescendo-ing for some time leading up to the adoption of more natural spoken forms to writing.

Naturally, there is a tendency to join the formal written language to the spoken language as used by mandarins in the capital. Priests to Rome conversing in Latin, one might analogize. Where Italian pronunciation feels as though it comes the closest to that language not actually spoken any longer.

Abstractions take meaning out of time and of course it's tempting to give them historical origins or to remove them from time altogether. When, in fact, they exist with the same sort of precision as my mind does, located somewhere that you can identify as me, but amalgamated from those various times in my life when you might have known me. Including me in the future according to your imaginings or mine, and based on misgivings as much as on aspirations. Trust and confidence. Predictability.

I am foretold, though accident might intervene. Machines are always the same for all time, and only wear down. Their future state is given by their present disposition, apart from breakdown or unforeseen environmental impacts.

Operator failure caused the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. There was insufficient training and drilling and understanding about how to read the instruments, which were doing their reporting in ways counter-intuitive and misleading. Anyone who's ever done mechanical systems troubleshooting (including computer systems) understands not just the tendency, but the necessity to be stuck in ruts. In order to solve problems, you have to settle first on an interpretation of the basics, and if there is a mistake at that level, then the solution will never be found.

When time is of the essence, catastrophe can result as it did at Three Mile Island, which was a more robust (pressurized water) reactor design than the ones now melting down  in Japan (boiling water Mark I GE designs).

In the case of Three Mile Island, the man-machine interface broke down. In the case of Japan now, there was an environmentally induced catastrophe which requires that the human operators operate within a much more slim margin for error. One hopes that the man-machine interface has been improved. One hopes that the instruments present their readings in properly intuitive fashion. One hopes that the drills have gotten better, and that economics hasn't whittled them down to complacency.

A writer of Chinese might be utterly lost without the machine now. A writer of English would likely be able to carry on, even though, as in the case of my handwriting, the resulting forms would not be pretty. The complexity of Chinese written forms moves in the direction of machine constructs, which, like any kind of fancy printing, take more talent than one might like to exercise to bother forming them by hand.

So on the one hand, the computer provides more leverage for the efficient writing of Chinese. On the other, it removes more of the human from the process of deploying the tools of writing. Though the machine can find them and render up a virtual concordance, must it not be mind which hears the echoes of writing now in writing then. Computers can only write poetry, to be construed as such by mind. They don't do so well at making sense.

Dispositionally, I confess to a preference to hand tools over the power kind. They are easier to control, they make less noise, and although they may require more practice to master, it seems as though there's much less prospect for disaster in their operation.

I suppose that there is an analogous difference between handwriting and word-processing, and that the boundary would be placed differently for Chinese writers as compared with writers in English.

I don't propose that this distinction be tested, but only that it provides a kind of conceptual scaffolding for what I consider to be the more important assumption that there is less temptation by abstract concepts among those within the Chinese linguistic sphere of influence.

We're the ones who posit God, and we're the ones who, borrowing from the Japanese who nearly use them that way, mistake Chinese written forms for ideographic representations of raw ideas. I think that for the Chinese, written forms were much more thing-like, and that what they excited "in" the mind was not so much the abstracted referents of truth and beauty as the more concrete transformation of the world about one, according to received wisdom about what one might see if one is educated.

And thus in place of dreams of scientific law to enforce agreement among intellectuals, or political law to enforce civilized and civilizing behaviors, the Chinese have traditionally emphasized shared reading. The mind changes not so much by contact with new "ideas" as by innering the privileged point of view of poets: makers who put the written words together in ways actually to heighten the raw stuff of nature; which is built of yin-yang interactions. Couplets dancing on the page move the mind in apprehension of life as it gets lived.

So why all this shorthand, shorn of adequate reference and proper scholarly apparatus? Why the rush?

Well, because it still is that man-machine interface which is doing us in. It is dreams of immortality, or machine-based consciousness as though our human consciousness is the same as it ever was and will be. As though by the time that we can design a machine on which to host consciousness our human consciousness will have remained the same but for its better apprehension of more elaborated scientific principles.

This dream, by deferring what we need to do right now, is killing us. It is past time already to acknowledge that there is no set reality apart from our interpretation of it. There is no discoverable political or economic system which can handle our collective responsibility not to destroy the ground on which we stand.

Or rather, there is no way that we will find it for so long as we continue to defer our responsibilty until the proper laws are discovered or promulgated which will either force or entice is to live, collectively, within our means. Each of us must act as the co-creators that we are, and not throw up some prayer to abstraction.

And though there is and should be much resistance to acknowledging it, there does exist already a natural turning point in the discoverable laws of natural science.

Starting with Einstein's testable and fully demonstrated positing that the speed of light is a universal constant, not relative to the motion of any observer, and followed on by the discovery of the quantum quality of matter and energy (as previously equated by that famous mass-energy formula E=mc²) whereby energy is always exchanged in discreet packets or particles, and mass is always propagated wave-like, as if unlimited by restrictions of location or momentum . . . Starting with Einstein, it was already apparent that there was required a further change to our common ways of describing reality.

This further change has proven to be the most difficult; the one we are all most reluctant to accept (as if it was easy to get our heads around the changes urged post-Einstein!). It requires that we abandon the expectation that all of reality will ever be describable in terms of natural and discoverable principle. It requires that we finally do abandon any notion of our innocence, as though we are the random byproducts of some natural processes which have led to life on earth.

We have to stop thinking that we are as entitled as any other species to fight for our all. We are, in fact the responsible species, and the only one whatever you might like to argue about what other species laugh or talk or make emotive expressions of their faces.

OK, so this feels pretty far afield from where I started, right? Why all that talk about differences between Chinese and Western written forms. And borders, and natural law?

First because my own mind would not have cracked without the study of Chinese having done it to me; the realization that there isn't only one way to read the world, and that many sensible statements in English, such as "there is a God" simply don't work in Chinese.

And in physics I felt the paradoxes of the Standard Theory to be a slap in the face. Matter couldn't travel faster than the speed of light, but apparently information had to. So for some thirty years now I've been running around like Chicken Little trying to get at least one other person to understand that it makes no sense to talk as though "mind" were only a human quality, evolved with us from chaos.

It makes no sense to dismiss emotion as some sort of charming epiphenomenon of human consciousness, or icing on the cake of thought. Emotion gets in the way of scientific understandings. It's that process which provides the most clear and present danger to rational thinking, and leads nuclear power-plant operators to make fateful mistakes in their behaviors.

But while there have been attempts to develop theories of emotion and to build them in to designs for Artificial Intelligence, to my knowledge - and I've been looking really really hard - there has never been a statement which has been other than silliness, that emotion is also a cosmological constant which, like mind, was not awaiting humanity's evolution to be manifest.

Emotion is simply that configuration of mind which knows before it happens that there will be a perceptual impingement - an energy implication - between "things" which are only conceptual before they make contact. Concepts, in other words, are things held only "in mind."

And so why all this verbiage now? Well, it's nothing new. It's a reiteration of what I've been saying all along here. But the trouble is that I've run out of time and living space (which means I've run out of money). I'm hopeful now that I'll gain employment within the week. All the stars seem aligned.

But it will cut sharply into my writing time, which might provide some relief to you, gentle reader, but it won't do a thing for this rather desperate need that I've had for all these years now to find someone to "get" what the hell I'm talking about.

Of course it is possible that far from learning how to write better, I've actually gotten worse and worse and that nothing will do more for my expository style than to let it rest. But for the fact that my mind and body age, right along with the course of our fine Earth as we send it to hell in a handbasket.

Or I could learn how to tell stories better. The trouble is that they always end up being about Howie. Plus it may just be that story tellers are born and not made.

Well anyhow, please wish me well as I make my crossing to that great beyond, over the border from freedom to employment, where my time will be my own no longer, as though it ever was!

and, and, and, don't you think it's really really silly the way that we all act as though life here on Earth in a solar system in a galaxy in a universe in a cosmos all somehow descended from a Big Bang is all there was and ever will be? Don't you think that there's something rather more interesting than that going on? We act as if normal has been disrupted! But what could possibly be normal about our very human existence? The Earth is being gentle with us still for but a moment longer.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Gold Standard Oil for Complexity

Global Warming! That explains the earthquakes. I wonder if anyone who would know how to do it has calculated the shift in tectonic pressures caused by rising sea levels. Or the damming of the Yangtze or the lowering of the water level in the underground sea which waters our oil-glutted agriculture. Or the loss of shock and heat absorption from sucking out the oil, or or.

We do know that building in enough complexity, the way it's done with nuclear powerplants which can fail even when it's statistically near impossible for that many systems to fail at once, pretty much assures disaster according to how much is riding on it.

We do know that when there's a choice to play against the fates, we always take it. It's a moral imperative, such as when there's a medical test which causes little harm but might reveal something wrong that should be fixed. And there has to be a really really big lottery pay-off before we throw in our lot with the roulette wheel.

Whatever our economic arrangements or the ideologies behind them, we seem to have found an effective way to balance efforts such that more and more cars can run and people can eat and have potable water. Tall buildings get built, and good writers write and thinkers think even though there's always all that hand-wringing about ain't it awful and things are going to hell in a handbasket.

One ought to render amazement where amazement's due. Broadly speaking, something very similar to what people think when they think capitalism has got the globe in its grip. And it works pretty well. Except for the problem with limited resources and complexity which we seem capable to build beyond our ability to stay on top of it. And then we wish we'd left things where we'd found them.

No one of us, individually, wants to push our earth to its edge. But collectively, that's how all our individual desires get rendered. There will be blood.

Increasingly, our desires can be translated to energy costs. Money and oil are fungible, except that oil has come so freely and easily that we have been allowed to spend it almost without any thought. And in the expenditure, we ourselves, conscious humans, have become the equivalent of that asteroid which caused the extinction of the otherwise robust dinosaurs.

It turned out that the universe of dinosaurs was nowhere near diverse enough to have a branch which fitted to a new niche in the cataclysmically shifting environment. Well, maybe the feathered sort, but it was the warm-blooded mammals which evolved through the asteroid winter and the rest, as they say, is history.

No scientist will touch the asteroid story as having any cosmic significance except for its representation of random processes. Stuff happens, and thankfully there must be other pockets of life in the infinite cosmos.

But such an event is surely significant for its formative nature relative to us. No consciousness without it. Which leaves the goddists a loophole big enough to drive a civilization through. But for the scientific community, there's nothing left to chance. To assign meaning of the sort I mean to the random happenings of the cosmos would be to abdicate any responsibility at all.

Fools rush in!

Aside from global warming, our contemporary economy makes it very difficult to credit those chance events which, were we honest, have made each of us who we are. It would be a dronish person indeed whose every personal triumph was planned and prepared for. Who never took an accidental opportunity when it was on offer. But the jobs to be filled call for precisely such drones: people whose enthusiasms have been properly channeled since birth. Without credentials and experience, no-one need apply.

Who did we marry, what happenstance allowed us to take the job or career which has kept us going our whole life long? Even though now I couldn't even dream of applying for jobs I once successfully accomplished, because I never did have the proper resume in the first place. And I'm too old to go back to school for it. Which would be humiliating anyhow since I'd already know most of what my callow classmates were only beginning to understand.

Ah, the indignity of chance's being closed out!!

This is not good. It makes us brittle. And so accidents will or must happen to shuffle us up and redistribute the efforts so that random types can take over responsibilities for which they are manifestly under-qualified. That's how consciousness advances, at least by analogy to evolution. Which is a stretch, but still. I don't think we should all be held in jobs by fear. I don't think we should buy the argument that we're collectively broke, when there's never been so much wealth by any measure.

I don't know how consciousness works, but I'm satisfied that I wouldn't have any if it weren't for the collective sort. I know it makes no sense to say that my consciousness is "in" my brain, and more than it makes sense to say that the meaning of words is in them. These words, these tools, bind me to my fellow man. They crystallize or not according to sense and style and how they guide desires.

I have no trouble allowing that my mind is not so much bounded as centered, and that qua Dennett, the I that is me is a fictional abstraction at the center of my emotive gravity. Were I not cared for, I surely wouldn't exist. And were I not somewhat abused, I'd have no safe compartment into which to pour my standby self, the emergency self-sufficiency generator which runs on rationality. Were I more abused I'd be a drone. I'd be a machine. I'd have no feelings.

Collectively now we render up our rationality, or so we suppose it is, to a collective irrational howl into the blankness of space and it would seem to end there. Nothing propagates in nothingness.

But for the repose of random, which is nothing other from the innering of patterns originated elsewhere from my conscious or our collective conscious desires. Random means other-ordering, not meaninglessness. Meaningless is suicide. Meaningless is pushing emotion out of the cosmos by supposing that only human minds can feel it. Other minds, not earthly, can feel it too, and they already know the accidents in our future. That's what intention means.

But this is stuff and nonsense and not worthy to be written down. I'll grant that. It's free.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Narrative Imperative

Now that I have a smartphone, I tend to use it to look up words. Here in America I don't mind so much that Google might be tracking my searches, but it does occur to me that did they want to they could pretty easily discover exactly what I'm reading; I'm pretty sure the choice and sequence of words I'm looking up makes a sort of signature for which book I'm reading.

That sort of search is trivial for computers, and tough for a guy like me. In fact, if you were to highlight all the terms in a particular book which stand out simply for being underutilized in the corpus of all books; nevermind the state of the particular reader's mastery, you'd have a pretty good way to catalog the books. It would also be more enriched than just titles, authors, dates and keyterms. Maybe.

I'm sure this is why Google is so hard at work accomplishing that great public service of scanning in all the works from the world's key libraries, and I wouldn't complain about it. Well, except that as has been indicated by the recent business losses descended from necessary changes to the Google search algorithms, they clearly have too much power.

But imagine if the government were to take the Google utility over. There'd be all sorts of politicization to what really should be decisions motivated only by Google's self interest. If we can't count on that, then what can we count on?

An ever changing catalog of word frequencies could allow the precise placement of written works within the ever shifting sands of cultural epistemes. Works could be dated, authors and readers profiled, and lots of conjecture could be accomplished, mechanically, about where the epistemes are headed. Who's the vanguard, and what is the conservative drag coefficient.

Or we could mandate a pubic database, using reliable and repeatable cataloging principles. Of course we'll have to keep a few libraries open and a few public-servant librarians employed at something better than slave wages if such an extravagant notion is to have a ghost of a chance in the Wild World Web, where information just wants to be free!!!

When I go to the movies, I make decisions about which one to see based on some powerful calculus of the relation among my energies: my desire to escape, to be entertained, or to learn something. But since it's almost always a series of either/or decisions, there's a diminishing chance I'll ever spend my money and time to watch a C-grade movie, whatever the genre. Even if some poor schmuck of a film-maker worked his heart out on the one I'll never see.

I don't read much stuff that's written for edgy specialists either, and why would I? The effort to be expended would quickly encompass the entire professional life I didn't spend. Not to mention the time spent looking things up.

I suppose it'll be a nice day when everything operates the way that NetFlix does, and so Google or some other book purveyor can recommend to me some signature books which follow the pattern of my affinities. (The government can track me down as well, lumping me in with those folks who have nefarious motives for their concealed reading or other weapon-toting habits.)

But there are two things which make life worth living (for the purposes of this narrative). One, of course, is serendipity. The other is authors who consider it their duty to write for a general public without dumbing their writing down the way that Harvard philosophy chair has done (I won't name him since I only read the free Kindle first chapter, and I found it insulting to my intelligence, as though written algorithmically with a flow of words so smooth I hardly even had to think).

Essentially, they reveal the wisdom of their narrow discipline to the greater reading public, among other things just in case someone from a different discipline - or even no discipline like yours truly - is able to take the writing and run with it. Reframing according to the principles of Occam's Razor can be such a powerful thing, and it can never happen at the pinnacle of accomplishment inside some discipline. Not able to see the forest for the trees kind of thing.

Of course, there's also money in writing for a mass audience, and the closer you can make your language conform to the prevalent popular waves, the more there is to be made.

I am apparently not the only person who's read of Rupert Sheldrake's crossword puzzle experiment. It's one of a series of experiments designed to test for "morphic resonance" which predicts, among other things, that tricks once learned are more trivial to learn once some one being has done it.

So, if you pre-publish the New York Times crossword puzzle so that it can be solved by a random selection of puzzlers before it gets published for the general public, that puzzle (presumably randomly selected from a bunch of norm-referenced puzzles) will be demonstrably easier for the general public to solve than puzzles which have not yet been puzzled over. Even though the pre-solvers are prevented from sharing their solutions.

Pretty cool, no? But are crossword puzzles in the realm of normal tasks which require complex understanding or detailed recipes for their solution? In my example yesterday, I contrasted unself-conscious mastery to mastery which can be taught in a kind of aha quantum leap fashion: recipe instruction compared with rapid deployment frame-changing.

I suggested that the most powerful teaching might always involve frame-shifting, which is specific subcategory of principle discovery as opposed to the simple recitation of factual narrative. I also said of myself, since I'm memory challenged, that internalizing operating principles is the only trick I have. I'm lazy I guess. I look for the most direct solution which doesn't involve much higher math.

The rest of you may not be so troubled by porous memory, and so you memorize formulas for a science or a math test, say. I can't and so I must derive them each and every time, or so my life's narrative goes. But I could never do it on my own without knowing that they had been derived before and having myself rehearsed their derivation. In essence I simply reiterate a familiar process. Maybe that's just another mnemonic device, like constructing mental architecture or other techniques I've heard about.

Crossword puzzles involve, sometimes, surprising word associations, which, like jokes, once told seem quickly to become general currency. If they were already general, then the puzzle part of the crossword simply wouldn't work.

But just as with jokes, they work because they are, more or less, in the air. If one comedian doesn't coin it, someone else will. Puzzle master, first solver, Stewart/Colbert (who always joke about the same stuff some of the time). This obsession with priority is so pre-post-modern!

The guy stuck in the old frame, who just doesn't get it (me!) can never be the teacher, and some jokes just aren't ready to be told, but once the overall ground of discourse is tilled for it, there is a kind of inevitability about someone somewhere and maybe almost everyone everywhere being able to come up with the resolution, the joke, the word-association.

Pinpointing the shift toward readiness is about like locating free will or the conscious actor on the Cartesian Stage. Among the contingencies and deliberations, false starts and completions of someone else's beginnings, I still wonder why it matters. What matters is that things do originate, it hardly matters where. Unless self-aggrandizement is the goal (which, of course, it always is - that's a part of the narrative imperative).

But clearly, if there is attention to the problem, and the solution is arrived at, then the world (of discourse, in this case) has moved a smidge in a direction it might not otherwise have moved. Because there is no known conduit for transmission doesn't mean we have to fill in the blanks with ESP or psi or other words which stand in for what we either don't or can't know or both or either.

The problem of precise origination or precise location or precise causal chains is remarkably analogous to the problem (solved!!) in physics about particle/wave mass/momentum information/perception. To within a cloud of precision some things simply can't be known. That doesn't mean they aren't.

I wonder why that is such a surprise, and why there is such resistance to buying it?

Well, of course it's a cheap trick and undermines all the hard work we've done to build up complex theories to explain not just how things work. In those momentary choices which must be made, while standing in line to watch the movies, or deciding what to read or with whom to mate, we really do want guidance. But not to the point of the absence of any free will.

Right now we are all still in thrall to the meme of mechanism, of cause and effect originating somehwere, which causes (!!!) us, collectively, to go marching off the virtual cliff, which will certainly be for the good of the planet if not for the good of the species. (Or was that the other way around? Our march to the cliff is wreaking an awful lot of havoc on the planet, which might wish that we would jump already, if it were to have wishes).

A crossword puzzle is an arbitrary shift in the ground of discourse, meant only for the amusement of those of us enamored of words. A choice about which movie to watch if of no consequence whatsoever. But if the field of possible choice is reduced to that with which the powers that be feel unthreatened, we start to worry about being entertained to somnolent death.

If the rewards for origination become so extravagant that individuals can control the wealth of nations (Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, the Googles not to mention the actors [actors!!??], we start to wonder about our relative freedoms.

We are all whores to dictators if the price is right!

If, on the other hand, the cataloging of our corpuses of words in the world of discourse were never a matter for proprietary algorithms: If the fiction of the private were dissolved within the fact that there is no private discourse, and if the catalog were to remain stable according to the well-worn paths of seekers. And finally if the role of serendipity were to be embraced as fundamental, finally, to what it means to be alive, which of course it is. Then we might not be required to follow one another over that cliff which is the only possible end to our clambering after the pinnacle of origination. The spike of free will's tipping point.

Yes, to make any sense at all a narrative has to be time-sequenced. Attention gets paid in order. The bounds of shared meaning get explanded. And when the seed crystal is dropped into the supersaturated tangle of words - or when the vessel gets tapped - sense does start to crystallize without any matter of authorship origination proprietorship or wealth to drag it down. The truth is feerer than all the efforts now deployed to keep it costly. Well, apart from the Scientologist, no-one does put a price on knowledge.

How odd that this mad mad race for knowledge and understanding should fall victim to its own efforts. Because it was thought more complicated than it is. If we simply were to recognize our interdependence and the role of chance in the lot of each of us, we might yet realize the fruits of our conscious labor.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Occam's Razor Redux - Rupert Sheldrake's Morphic Resonance - Doggie Style

Hmmm, it seems to me I've worried this one enough, but, well just like dogs seem to worry bones based on some hard-wired (what a weird locution) feedback loop, certain things just won't get out of my head. Like I have this dog companion now who came along with my companion companion, and she automatically knows which oncoming dogs to steer clear of and which to avoid.

Not being a dog person, I have no clue. So, I'm focusing on which dogs cause this one to be alert, and which are ignored and I'm looking for some clues based on size or skittishness, and then finally I ask at what must be the right moment, and the answer is 'oh, I just look at the owner.'

Now I'm sure I could have discerned some pattern eventually and become almost as reliable in my predictions, but basically I was looking at the wrong thing. I would have required a lot more data, and I'm not that smart. You should have seen me trying to figure out the best way to light a wood stove and maximize its output. Eventually I became a master, but there was hardly anything conscious or systematic about it. A master would have put me to shame, though maybe not with my stove.

My master in the doggie follies did happen to know her own trick, which made it trivially easy to teach and so now I can quickly learn which dogs to avoid. Wouldn't it be great if all teaching were that trivial? The trouble is that I doubt I could teach someone else to light a fire as well as I finally was able. And to add difficulty to trouble, it seems just as likely that someone else would do better off alone rather than to try to assimilate my highly idiosyncratic and possibly mistaken assumptions.

I do rather tend to assume that my students have a better way than I might show them, although if someone is evidently experiencing frustration, I'll break down my assumptions for them. Ways to estimate moisture content, the air flow in some relation to holding the heat in depending on how much heat is being generated. And finally that wonderful balance where there is very little air moving through, but lots of heat generated. It feels like magic. I'm talking about my wood stove.

I've taken a glancing read of Sheldrake's radical departure from analysis to describe morphogenetic fields. It's exciting. But here's a case of satisfying Occam's Razor without any facility to fill in the space where the answer lies.

In the case of a magic trick also, you are already certain that things are not as they seem since the seeming is simply too unthinkable. But you don't know where to look. If someone points it out, you feel that wonderful 'aha!' sense of cognitive dissonance resolved.

I need detail. Just how does a morphogenetic field work? What does it explain that genetic expression doesn't for instance. And if it "explains" why something once learned makes it easier for remote learners to learn it the next time around even without teaching, how is that different from the fact that simply knowing that something has been solved makes the solution both easier to accomplish and sometimes less interesting?

Just because some shift in the discourse patterns propagates faster than we think it should given what we know about communication doesn't mean we know everything about communication. There are lots of things going on in our peripheral vision, as it were, that never enter our consciousness.

"Morphic Resonance" seems too vague a catchphase, and in danger of exposure as was the "ether," which turned out not to have been necessary for the propagation of perceptual information. And yet its evaporation - the *poof* which made the ether go away - actually forced a look toward a far stranger construing of the way things work. It seems that there are "as if" waves which propagate in nothingness in advance of perceptual impingements.

Now this is an explanation which nicely fuels still more investigation, since it both answers and defines new questions. We can chase our tail forever!

When staring us down, right in the face, as it were, is a resolution which both satisfies the demands of Occam, as well as to do away with that frustrating named lacuna. Morphic Resonance is, in other words, a place-holder without meaning, rather like God or soul or for that matter mind. The very utterance of the word fools the mind (??)  into thinking that something will be found to fill the space where something simply must be because we named it.

In fact (I use the term advisedly, which is to say as self-conscious metaphor) what has to happen is that we need to change our usage. Matter propagates very much as if there were an ether, the way that sound waves propagate through matter.

Mind functions very much as though it were located, even though it's demonstrably not. Mind might be destroyed right along with brain, but so is sense when words are jumbled. That doesn't mean the sense was *in* the words.

Although it represents my strongest self-identification, I have no trouble at all conceiving that my mind extends to all the universe of which I am aware. Right down or back or over to that great Big Bang, I suppose. I think that's what it means to make sense. Um, not that I always make sense, but you know what I mean.

My mind would be nothing were it not for the words and texts and discourse of all those others before and around me. And once we succeed in our quest for dominion over all that lives on earth, I have no trouble at all declaring, now before it's too late, that my consciousness will go the way of all consciousness. To sleep, perchance to dream. Most certainly not to be.

It is not a simple trick of language to consider that mind is coeval with cosmos. It's just a better definition of the word. Things exist in relation before they are in perceptual touch. Perception is mediated by particles, right down to the limit of that elusive hadron, graviton, what you will.

Beyond it? There is emotional attraction; a prediction of contact, though no force can be detected.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Opening an E-mail to Daniel C. Dennett

Naturally, Professor Dennett can't afford to read nor certainly respond to anonymous emails from his fandom, but at least I got a very nice canned response explaining that.

Still, even though it's as dense and therefore time-consuming to read as everything I write, I thought I'd post it here, just for the record.

Of course, since writing it, my own thinking has evolved, and Professor Bem was kind enough to remind me that he has refuted his refuters, and more importantly, that he did, in fact, use both a pseudo random number generator and a true random number generator in his experiments.

So, while I would drop my proposed "experiment" I still maintain that all that can be tested for is the reasonable limits for a definition of mind (its boundary) and not pre-cognition per se.  Or in other words, if mind cannot be dis-implicated from matter (a major burden of Dennett's work) then the imposition of time's arrow, which is difficult to accomplish *in* the mind, is difficult to distinguish from fictional or creative narrative.

It is, of course, my burden to de-center notions of narrtive true-ing processes more generally, and I carry on:

Professor Dennett;

I've just finished reading Consciousness Explained and then familiarizing myself with your work more generally. In brief, I find the writing brilliant and the overall case cogent and convincing. Since it's far too late for me to take up the study of consciousness to the level of your accomplishment,  I feel entirely comfortable saying that for my purposes you have indeed explained consciousness. (I'll still read on through what you've written since!)

Here's why I write: As it happens, I read your book in light of the soon to be published work of Professor Bem regarding Psi and possibly pre-cognition of which I'm sure you are aware. I also read a cogent critique from the Bayesian side of statistics which relieves me, at least, of the need to worry too much about pre-cognition as Bem's work purports to discover it. Were there pre-cognition it would, of course, fall within the margin of error which Bayesian statistics provides as corrective to non-Bayesian methods. That's almost definitional. Accounting for the priors is hard to distinguish from accounting for frame of mind.

But since your approach to consciousness defies attempts to "locate" it, say in a brain, and since therefore there can be no meaning to simultaneity among drafted cognitions in a single mind - as you demonstrate convincingly in your book - therefore time's arrow has no place "in" the mind. A properly time-sequenced narrative must emerge for sense to prevail, but that is a separate matter from the order of events perceived, conceived, cognized or re-cognized.

You also challenge, at least implicitly, the bordering of the mind by the limits of its physical substrate (the brain, for instance) among other places by your suggestion that a single mind may be thought to be distributed, as in certain twins who inhabit a coherent biography.

So first of all, if there is no singular locus for any thought inside the brain, any cognition there must in effect allow for pre-cognition. Indeed it's not a problem worth bothering about, since even in principle there's no way to measure it, again as I believe you amply demonstrate in this book. At the very least any thought remains subject to subsequent cognition for so long as it might be held in abeyance by some sense that there will be more to assimilate before a completed thought is uttered.

Consciousness, in other words, may have more to do with sense of completion, rather more like the ballistic act of throwing a ball than like hitting a target. You initiate and correct along the way until release.

But more interestingly to me, if the mind cannot be located entirely "inside" the brain, then all those peripheral happenings which impinge on thought, of course including chance or random events, could be thought to condition moment of release according to their various potentials and probabilities (as variously perceived or conceived) regardless of their literal time-sequencing.

In Bem's experiment, the button-clickers have some anticipation of porn - they have a motive to click, not unlike someone playing Jeopardy.

Pre-cognition, however, is the wrong thing to test for. Rather, there should be some test along the lines of how Bell's Theorem is tested in physics, to demonstrate the impossibility to disprove spatial separation of cognitive inputs (technically indistinguishable from pre-cognition) to within the margin of error between Bayesian and non-Bayesian statistical models.

My suggestion would be to redo the Bem experiment but using the pseudo-random number generated by the bounded system of the computer, rather than the "true" random number generated in the same "cosmos" within which the subject's mind is choosing.

After all, it is damned impossible to determine that the coin is a fair coin after a long run of heads, other than by invoking "prior" knowledge. But as with voting machines which preserve a physical record, as least with a pseudo random number, you have a trace to compare against.

Of course it is my sense that, as with physical reality, there is some dimension beyond which certainty is not only impossible for practical reasons, but impossible in principle. I suspect that this prospect unsettles you no more than it does me. I'd love to learn of a better conceived experiment than the one I propose, but I can't think one up right now - I know it's out there!

Of course I have plenty more to say on the subject, but I have used enough of your time (pure wishful thinking on my part).


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Consciousness Burlesque

It's well enough known that when the body is suffused with certain kinds of hormones, the mind can make almost any shape erotic. It scans for cues, and finds them in the strangest places. Kind of in the way that once you start, every statement can become a sexual double entendre.

This is among the stuff now fading for me. Could be the hormones, could be the energy to infer shapes where randomness resides, or it could be what it's usually called: memory loss.

It's commonplace to hear people tell, with assurance, how songs are more easily remembered than straight prose. How rhyming is mnemonic. Well, I can memorize hardly anything, and I can assure you on the basis of plenty of experimentation, I can't remember a song to save my life.

Finally, after days and days of trying I did manage to memorize both the words and the chords to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Part of its charm is that each time I sing it, it's almost entirely new. Sometimes I go off the rails, and sometimes I have to start over, but I hardly think that either the rhyme scheme or the music is helping me to remember the words. I should work on that, but there are always so many more interesting things to do.

What I do remember easily are principles. Ways to put words together. My principles change, so that some days I'm a strong believer in the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, and others I'm equally certain that it's not possible. Some days I have nearly absolute confidence of the importance of my principles for ordering the stuff of reality, and some days I'm pretty sure that I'm deluded. I'm glad I can still laugh.

But I don't forget those things once they're formulated, and sometimes I find clues hidden among the random stuff I read, or watch, or in process of conversation. It helps in particular to try explaining something that I think I understand really well. I'd say I'm a passibly good explainer. I remember principles, but I forget which side I'm on, especially when I'm in the throes of explaining the opposing case.

It is really really strange that I ever took up the study of Chinese poetry. Traditionally, it's all about memorization, which as I've told you, I just can't do. But I seem to have an easy enough time remembering written forms. I think that's because they get used in sentences and these sentences make sense: each little one of them is like a mini principle, or rather the usage of a word in a sentence invokes a principle specific to that word, and I can remember it. Apparently pretty well. I can't remember the poem but I can remember what the words mean.

Now I've been puzzling over these pre-sentiment experiments which have subjects choosing which curtain the erotic image is behind, before the image has been put there, and they seem able to choose the right one at some frequency greater than chance. And I read the refutations, always investigating where the sleight of hand is.

I think no-one supposes that there is deliberate misleading going on, but the result is so utterly unthinkable, like a pretty woman sawn in half, that there must be something we're paying the wrong kind of attention to. Historically, it takes quite a while to find out what is "really" going on when surprising results are found through the methods of science. But surely something is distracting both the investigators and those who can find no flaws in the method.

I've suggested that the misdirection occurs in the same way it always does; when we think we know what we're seeing and so we direct our attention to someplace different from where the action is really happening.

Experimental evidence from elsewhere amply demonstrates that gross changes can be made to images as we memorize them and we will never notice, so long as these changes aren't made while that part of the image is at our focal point. These magic tricks are accomplished by computers armed with eyeball trackers, and I don't mean the kind which uses cookies on your computer.

They literally track your eyeball movements so that gross changes can be made while your memorization is in process and you won't even know that anything's happened. Write it down, print it out, if you want to be sure of the arrangement.

As investigator Bem points out, when you're all hepped on reproductive urges, there's a pretty big evolutionary payoff to finding sexual objects all over the place. You're motivated and there is an immediate cost in frustration to not finding your quarry; there's a bias in favor of making mistakes rather than to lose the prospect altogether. I guess sometimes almost anything will do, even a pure figment of the imagination.

And yet the research seems to show that so powerful is the motivation that patterns not discernable by ordinary man or machine are discernible by the horny subject. And this is surprising?!

Oh wait, I've performed a sleight of hand myself, haven't I? I've suggested that the subjects were looking for patterns and not for porn per se. And that the same pre-conscious assembly line which creates naked flesh from shadows and used subliminally in advertisements, also knew which way to look between curtain A and curtain B.

But I've also suggested that the hypothesis about effects from the future is misguided. This is rather an experiment to test what should be considered to come from inside the mind as opposed to what originates outside it. It's an exercise in boundary discovery, and not in pre-cognition.

Hepped up subjects will see more porn than not for sure, and so then the proper focal point for analysis might be how the images were tagged as erotic. For some stupid reason I can't identify, I watched the recent movie Burlesque, and I'm a little bit ashamed to say that I didn't find it very erotic at all. Well, not ashamed exactly, but more some function of age I'd like to color over.

Cher looks plastic as always, and Christina Aguilera comes on like a post modern Marilyn Monroe which is to say I know Marilyn and she ain't it. All the pieces are doing what they're supposed to do, the curves are all emphasized in just the right way, the jiggles are choreographed and the cameras are cut away at just the right moment to allow my brain to commit that special crime of filling out the detail (the crime is not in the doing, but in the manner of speaking about it, as Dennett urges) with idealized forms.

You know the principle of eroticism is not erotic at all, but I suppose it must provide good scaffolding for memory in a memory challenged guy like me. Except oddly enough I need the picture. And better than the picture I'll take the real thing. And better than even the most nubile real thing I'll take the one I love, but I guess that's just me. I must be doing something to myself the way that the eyeball tracking machine fixes the picture while I'm paying attention somewhere else.

The mind's interpretation of the mis-ordered stuff of reality obeys the narrative imperative. Before sense can be declared, there has to be some possibility to arrange things according to some plausible order of operation, where plausible means like what happens out there in the real world. And this narrative imperative utterly trumps reality as can be demonstrated by flashing images in the right sequence.

So, back to the experiment and away from this tawdry misdirection! These pictures were distinguished in classification by sufficient normed distance between the erotic and the non-erotic that you'd have to assume that virtually anybody could tell which is which. But by god by the laws of polymorphous perversity, there still has to be someone somewhere among the subjects who's going to be turned on by being turned on or something weird like that.

We have a sort of standoff. Which is more real, the assemblage of the mind which strives to make sense of reality, or the real which presents the mind with impossible to assemble events? Make it work without reward or punishment and the mind will fall asleep. Make it play, and interesting, and the mind will be addicted.

So maybe that accounts for why the correlations weren't stronger: more removed from chance. There is in principle no way to know what your mind is missing from the reality that's out there without the ability to define a boundary. Without a before and after; without an in and out.

But a boundary requires different stuff on one side than on the other. And in the case of the blind spot in each of our visual fields which demarks the spot where the optic nerve crosses the retina, there's nothing on the one side, and therefore, no boundary. The mind "fills in" with plaid if there's plaid around the lacuna: with orange if it's orange.

But no! The mind does no such thing! It ignores the stuff that's not bounded. It doesn't "fill-in" nothing with something. It doesn't have any way to tell that nothing's there, and so the cosmos is complete.

The same is true about what's inside the mind and out. Metaphors for memory seem useful, but they also exclude other ways to think about these matters. Databases often store only indexes to stuff which resides elsewhere. If you destroy the stuff, the index is voided also, but the mind has no way to know that until it looks, and it can't look unless it knows the trick.

So these psi experiments don't show anything at all about presentiments of the future. They only point out blind spots in the mind, whose boundaries don't exist. We presume some sort of continuity; we don't fill it in with what we want to see, but rather by our wanting we actually do see patterns which are not in fact there yet, from some other point of view. We've brought inside the mind phenomena which were heretofore believed to be outside it, or vice versa.

We've supposed a boundary where there never was one, because there is more to to world than can be known. There are lacunae. By our careful interrogations, their outlines can be determined. There is stuff beyond the reach of knowledge. To say that stuff is random is an imposition of a sense we simply haven't made yet. It might be, it might not be. We simply can't know yet.

And so there is no boundary to the mind in any ultimate sense. There will always be more to be brought inside. And dreams of Artificial Intelligence, strangely, are premised on what we know right now of consciousness, even as it changes to something else entirely by virtue of our thinking about it. When nakedness doesn't seem so - when there's nothing left to hide - I guess we'll be back in Eden. I guess free will will be no more.

Bem, Dennett, Yudkowski, Wagenmakers, da bunch of 'em

Like accepting an award at the Oscars, it's hard to know whom to thank, but the list is growing. People arguing about pre-cognition, who should be arguing about something else instead. My list is not the same as your list.

Here's what we know: Statistical analysis falls short of classical proof in at least a couple of dimensions. First it always is and always will be subject to interpretation. After a while, the machinery gets way complex and the various experts sound like they're differing only in point of view.

We also know that definitions for mind, while radically incomplete in a lot of ways, should at least begin to accommodate the notion that there is no strict boundary between inside and outside the mind. And if there is no strict boundary, then it's pretty arbitrary whether you decide that pre-cognition is possible or if it's not, since it pretty much comes down to how you place that boundary.

In any given instance, most candidate boundaries involve volition. If something originates in the mind then it impacts stuff on the outside. But even that quickly becomes a chicken and egg problem where the distinction between paying attention and having your attention drawn is hard to discern.

So it looks as though there's going to have to be an experiment which will skirt the issue of statistical predictive analysis and unambiguously debunk the mechanics of cause and effect. That's already been done in physics to at least the point where we are arguing multiple universes and which metaphors for subatomic are the most consistent among, say, strings, particles and overall strangeness.

I wonder why we remain so skeptical in the macro world? Surely we understand that temporal ordering in the mind is a function of the ex-post-hoc narrative function of mind's threshold for outering or utterance. That is by itself  definition of the boundary between in and out. We assemble perceptions which come at us all out of order, but their condition for utterance is their completion, which includes their re-ordering into a temporal narrative.

You can't really talk to someone meaningfully if you're going to be telling them about what's going to happen unless you can direct their attention to shared perceptual data which is going to assure them you're right. If you refer to something only in your mind, then you have resort only to trust as the "mechanism" to gain that other person's concurrence. Ordinarily, it's no trick to trust that someone in a position superior to yours should be trusted when they shout "duck!"

For most of us, trust is also required to adjudicate among the contending scholars of statistical analysis, since all we really know for sure is that there's lies, damn lies and statistics, and we're getting damned tired of realizing that the experts use these matters against us to sell us quack medicine as often as they use it for our benefit. Practitioners are not always the most informed, especially when they're motivated.

So you end up assessing who has a stake in dreams of immortality, who just wants to get laid and who needs to be incredibly rich. Because he seems a kindred spirit, and doesn't seem to be dissociating from deep psychological hurt, in general I'll go with Dennett.

But his work harbors a deep inconsistency. On the one hand he seems to want to defer questions about pre-cognition off into infinity, while on the other he comes pretty close to saying that there are no clear bounds to the mind.

So, we have a definitional problem here. What is the mind and what is considered to be "in" it.

In my usage a mind is a truly trivial thing, present at creation. What? Creation!? No, that's not what I mean, since what the hell can creation mean? Anyhow, mind is simply that quality of phenomena which involves relations which are not mediated by perception.

In physics, perception involves the exchange of particles, up to the limit of gravity, which seems to implicate virtually everything at the macro level to the extent that gravity is only felt in relation. It seems to be true that there is a divide which cannot be crossed in principle between conceptual and perceptual relations, because the act of crossing collapses the conceptual into the perceptual. Trust me, that's what quantum physics means!

So perceptual reality is outside the mind and conceptual reality is in. I'm not sure how you can test for that, since for me it's by definition; there is no way otherwise to be consistent in what we talk about. Science is all about (actually, I think it's only about) reducing trust issues to as near to zero as can be accomplished, and even then, qua Wittgenstein, you have to have a willing interlocutor. Which hardly happens at the fringes of science, even among scientists who respect one anther. They always end up questioning motives. Sheesh!

And that's where emotion sneaks back into the game. Emotion as in what is it that you really want? Once you show up on Colbert, it's assumed you want book sales, but maybe that's because there's no other way to assert the rightness of your findings. You know they're right and that they will be swamped unless you garner a critical mass of readers to force attention.

But emotion is, you know, always implicated in the life of the mind. Conceptual motion is - and again I'm being definitional which is probably a crime in China, but I'll do it anyhow because around these parts we still believe in free speech - emotion. That's right! If you sense something having only a conceptual relation to something else moving on a collision course, you would be wise to predict actual perceptual implication. And in that sense sensed motion, or I mean emotion, is predictive of events in the outered world.

Since, by definition there isn't any perceptual implication yet, this prediction is not utterable. What you can talk about is your feelings, your wants, your hopes, your aspirations, but you can't assure anyone that these things will come about except by acting on them.  (how cool that even a word like "thing" becomes a metaphor!)

Feelings tend to be shared, and in precisely the manner that Fox TV can predict the future by creating it, you might find that the world's greatest narrative doesn't have to be true. It only has to change the world, Q.E.D. (Quite Evidently Dirty)

Well, OK so this is starting to feel dangerous. I only want to come up with some experimental proof that my definitions are better than your definitions. The presentiment of porn stuff is proving problematical since there are stubborn true believers out there who just won't buy it no matter the discount.

I'll bet if I were to offer a million dollars to the first person who comes up with a good experiment, I'd get it. Of course I don't have a million dollars, but I would have if someone were to take me up on the offer. Still, I'm just not that kind of gambler. Hmmmmm

OK, how about this: After thinking really really hard about why you won't slurp your own spit but you will slurp your lover's spit and more, which should sharpen your mind about the inside/outside boundary thing, now try imagining a world in which you just don't care about anything, but manage to stay conscious all the while.

You have no particular reason to pay attention to this or that, and no pretty asses catch your gaze (gender neutrality is critical here, since we don't want to fall into the Fox TV trap!). No emotional attachment to any sun God or other abstractions, so you can't imagine yourself a monk. A Buddhist, perhaps, but how many of them get to ZaZen in this lifetime? A scientist without passion about his work? Really??

You really can't do it, since you'd be imagining yourself perhaps acting as yourself but not being yourself.

I declare!

I really do doubt that there is an experiment which can be devised, unless it's the one over there among the borderlands of Europe, where they want to capture something metaphorically equivalent to the graviton. But where all the complexity just won't stay still long enough for things to get up and running.

My stars! What shall we do?

I for one am pretty cool with accepting a bit of ambiguity. I'm fine with notions of immortality by reputation and that one day my want will reduce to nil. That my consciousness comes and goes, and my me gets displaced and replaced, but that my desire remains until it to is resolved in crystalline clarity indistinguishable from death.

Or I would be fine to end me with a question mark, and allow as how consciousness is in a bottle, tossed to sea or smashed. Machines are awake already, sure, and not in some dim future. I feel they are already in control, and we have already become unfeeling.

But I will not be fooled by experimental evidence which is but sleight of hand. I want to see the outside in and the inside out before I admit defeat. I want to be educated.

OK, sorry, cheap ending. But I can't come up with a better one. Educate me!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Allowing for Presentiment, a Sketchy Sketch

You will likely not know about this, but there is an interesting polemic brewing about what would constitute adequate proof that presentiment, or awareness conditioned by events which haven't happened yet, is possible. Well, if you've been reading what I write, then you will know all about it, but that doesn't change the odds much, since reading me now demonstrates more likelihood that you've never read me before. (I have statistical proof of that if you're interested),

Meanwhile, consider this: Much if not most of what constitutes the readiness of a mind to consider a thought complete enough for utterance actually exists beyond what are ordinarily considered to be the boundaries of the mind. I should say "persists" as in things outside of us stay relatively put, and so we hardly have to keep checking in on them.

Living things move around more than inert objects, and virtual reality is less reliable than the real kind. There's no need, in other words, to stow whole chunks of reality "in" the mind since we can easily assess that it's likely still to be there when next we check. Words we utter simply require a stable reference and must draw attention reliably.

Inanimate objects moving without agency generally would give us the creeps. Most of us will want lots of testing before we're willing to cop out and call it ghosts. A similar thing is true about presentiment. Even if we just think we sense it, it's creepy.

We can pretty much assume that when someone turns their head as though in knowledge of our gazing at the back of it - they seem to have some kind of sensation that we were looking at them - it's because of occult features - simply unknown features - of the environment which indicate how something changed by the fact of our looking.

Maybe it's what's happening in other peoples' eyes, or maybe it's a kind of complex reflection or refraction beneath our conscious ability to make note. Perceptual trajectories bending by the gravity of our attention.

Maybe it's something in the shared surroundings which made us look at that person in the first place, and they simply sense that they are at its epicenter. Who's to say that we are the deciders in any particular instance, as opposed to responding to things happening around us that we haven't learned, consciously, to accommodate.

If there is a shifty portion of the world around you, it will change the valence for holding a thought inside, and for tagging it mentally as not ready to be part of any utterance. The more abstract they become, the more we might struggle to grasp the usage of words. Some instruments require much more practice before they're mastered.

Things about us which don't cohere may escape words altogether. We might be left with Wow! or Yikes! Sometimes intentional action is like taking steps into some empty seeming space which you can't resolve enough by your senses to be confident that the ground will be there. Even when it's always been there before.

But if something forces the issue, like say a fire at your back, you may leap as the better option against what you know with certainty.

After whatever was going to happen has happened, if it was a life-or-death matter, you'll clearly be confirmed in the correctness of your decision. The alternative is, in a trivial but silly sense, unthinkable. In a small way, of course, the ability to toss the dice well has to be considered a part of our strategy, individually and collectively, to come as far as we have.

But that's not what survival of the fittest means. It's our genes whose fitness is being determined, and we only count to the extent that our continued stability enhances the overall likelihood of our distributed gene-pool to persist. And even then our clan's persistence might be contrary to the interests of the greater good.

Surely our selfish happiness functions in relation to our retroactively confirmed presentiments about which would be the best course. Happiness wouldn't even be possible without a relatively fixed cosmos of possibility; suffering would never be worthwhile without the prospect to alter certain of those aspects which would make our happiness seem impossible.

Things outside our minds which matter to us are said to be held "in mind." When they change our mind changes. And when we know they will change, though they have yet to change, we might still change our mind before they do. In that case, our mind has been changed as much as we have changed it ourselves, and yet the change which caused it has yet to happen. This is only presentiment when the assurance can't be described or prefigured or calculated.

Now must it be that there is a known causal relation between our assessments of future change, and what eventually does happen? What about when a change to a third thing changes the relation between two things already held in mind without awareness of the third? New knowledge, in other words, might change the relation of the two already held in mind without anything needing to happen, eventually or right now, to the two not touched by the third.

Our actions can cause the changes we anticipate as much as they might respond to them ahead of time. And if this change occurs in mind prior to our conscious awareness of it, that would feel a lot like presentiment, right? Once caught in the act, we'd be likely to rationalize as though there were no choice.

Now proof is offered that things are still more mysterious. I'm liking it, but I find myself at a loss for words. Yes, the structure of the cosmos admits of mind apart from matter. It changes nothing except at the fringe where will and helplessness collide. At such moments consciousness arises.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Lost Mind, a Valuable Experiment

It's hard for me, but when I lose something, I try to forget about it for a while. Sometimes it seems that the need I have to find that thing that's lost causes it to be held too tightly in mind, and so like Bose noise cancelling headphones working on my overall perceptual apparatus, I can't see the blasted thing, though it might be right in front of me.

Other times, when all hope is lost to a rational mind, I look anyhow, and plenty of times I do actually find the thing. Once it was my brother's contact lens, lost while skiing in fluffy new snow. Another time it was a friend's engagement ring, which survived falling out of a boat turned upside down upon a car which had driven many miles along a bumpy and windy road. The ring was improbably lodged in the bumper.

These findings, when they occur, feel very much as though something mysterious about the cosmos is being tapped. When I turn away from the search, often enough the thing appears as clear as it had been in my mind all along and I am amazed I could have missed it. When something surely lost appears, impossibly among a camouflaged backdrop or despite having been discarded, it feels like a gift or an answer to a prayer.

And yet I don't doubt that Bayesian theoreticians will always be right when they debunk the work of Psi researchers. Precisely because they account for frames of mind.

Surely there is no impact of our mind alone upon the future, nor any kind of impact back in time. I can't imagine that my very need to find something can have an impact either way upon its appearance. Except, of course, that I wouldn't bother to look if I didn't care to. I can pretty easily make things stay lost forever by not bothering to look. And by refraining from running a vacuum and holding on to my need for the object for a while, I can be pretty certain, eventually, to find whatever's been lost.

So the trouble with Psi experiments is that they're testing against the wrong hypothesis. It's no good to test for whether choosing door "A" or door "B" can be done at better probability than chance depending on whether one wants to see what's behind it. One should test instead for rules of containment for the mind.

My mind cannot be precisely located within my brain. That seems settled fact. But the notion that my brain should contain fully one hundred percent of my mind seems highly problematical. Most of the structures which allow me to make sense of the world around me and to navigate it successfully don't need to be brought "inside" my mind by some representational process for them to serve my needs.

As long as they stay reliably put, and my mental apparatus can locate them regardless of the state of my moment by moment sensory input, they can stay right where they are on the outside. Take them away altogether though, and I might have a serious case of vertigo. Soon enough, I'd start hallucinating or in ordinary parlance, I'd lose my mind. Sensory deprivation experiments demonstrate this as fact.

So in this Psi experiment I've been reading about - speaking very metaphorically here, and oversimplifying shamelessly - male subjects were asked to identify where the pornographic picture would be before the computer had actually made its selection, which would be done post-hoc by a truly random (and not pseudo-random, which is the best that computers can do all on their own) process. Thus the chooser would have no way to know ahead of time which door would reward his choosing even were he able to get insight to the machine.

The results seem convincing that the subject either influenced random or that the future disposition of things had some sort of retroactive influence on the subject's choice. Either possibility is offensive to ordinary rules for reality.

Careful readers will immediately be reminded of Bell's theorem and the experimental testing which has demonstrated, convincingly to all the investigators who count, so far, that it is not only the case that measurements disturb the thing being measured (the weak version of uncertainty in physics) but that the thing itself doesn't even exist as a measurable object before the act of measurement. This is offensive at first perhaps, but apparently true.

Now of course I'm allowing Bell's theorem to stand in for all the strangeness which comes along with quantum physics, but then I'm writing in all sorts of shorthand, since the alternative is, well, offensive which you can easily demonstrate if you care to look backward in time through what I've written.

Even though there may be loopholes through which designers of experiments have allowed themselves to be fooled, I'm still taking it as factual that at the extreme reaches of scale it will be necessary to forgo precision in the description of the physical universe. It will also be necessary to discard strict notions of causality in the direction of time's arrow right along with definitions for simultaneity. In simple terms (ahem) when one is describing something at the extremes of scale in relation to the describer, the things described are neither here nor there.

In some sense they exist only in relation to other things, and in particular in relation to the uses to which they are being put, in this case for the purpose of understanding just how things work; beyond a fraction there just won't be an answer, Zeno!

Plenty of people speculate that this strangeness must also be a part of what is meant by consciousness, which also exists at the extreme, certainly, of some scale of mechanical causality. There is a very powerful seeming quality to our conscious freedom to choose, intentionally, between this and that: here or there.

Relations in our minds seem very much like those relations among quantum implicated entities. Indeed, they are identical. But it is the "transmission" of "information" that is problematical, not the definition of a conceptual relation as something apart from time and space. That's what mind means - a relationship without physical connection among the concepts apprehended (comprehended?).

But wanting them surely doesn't make things so. Not without a lot of work intervening; a lot of motivated cause and effect.

Now let's propose that in principle it's impossible to circumscribe, in any discreet and stable fashion, that boundary between what's inside and what's outside the mind of any individual. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. The stars, if I perceive them, are also in my mind, but not, perhaps, the imaginings of my lover right beside me; those would be in hers.

Still, there would be plenty of signals for what goes on in others' minds, and plenty of attenuated evidence for the sound trees make in forests when no-one's there to witness their fall. But that chaos and complexity prevent, in principle, any smooth tracing back to cause. That princess's pea is but a fiction.

And yet the tree did make a noise if it did fall, because if that were not the case, well, we'd lose our mind. We'd have to imagine things differently while our backs are turned than they are when facing forward. We'd have to hold everything on the inside - in our mind - which would leave the falling tree in a very very strange spot on the outside of our field of awareness.

Now you can surely see where I'm going with this. That porno picking pixilator (the computer which invokes random selection after I've made mine intentional) is in no wise on the outside of my mind. I've turned my back to it, or its workings have been shrouded, but to the extent that I as subject know what I'm expected to do, and even though I haven't a clue what's going on inside it, I do know that there is a picture picking machine which might reward my desire depending on how I pick.

Ah, but what about random? That by-definition a-causal method for choosing sides. If a part of my mind is but randomly connected to the shifting sands of reality outside it, then any fulfillment of my mind's desire is but a figment of my imagination. Like finding a lost and valuable object as the answer to my prayer. Its seeming doesn't make it so.

Unless random isn't random. Unless it's not just the computer which can only do pseudo-random. Because, you know, in order for a computer to come up with a coin toss, it has to look outside itself, picking something from the real world. And that's the world of my mind.

My favorite experiment from the world of quantum physics is the double slit experiment whereby there's no conclusion possible other than that photons are both waves and particles. That is to say that photons must both extend themselves in space and time as though there were some ether (which there demonstrably is not) for their propagation defined by field theory, and limit themselves to some more discreet and particle-like position and velocity.

So I'm looking for an experiment in the realm of consciousness which performs the analogous test. To demonstrate that the mind must be both a part of and apart from the randomly interacting stuff all around it. Gong-fu demonstrations won't cut it, since they'll be dismissed as sleight-of-hand tricks of magic.

One thought would be to replace the true random with the computer's internal pseudo-random number generator. That way, the computer would be more precisely cut off from any of that stuff around him which informs the intentional selector's expressed desire. Would the results diverge, and if so how?

I do believe that right there is the distinction without a difference between the Bayesian analysis of the results and the non-Bayesian regression analysis of divergence from chance. Each team wants to have its cake and eat it.

My goal would be to test the hypothesis that there is no sensible and consistent way to define the mind as bounded by the brain the body the skin the limits of perception. Rather the mind would be implicated, and intentionality could be abstracted. Surely I respond to random insults happening all around me. And just as surely those happenings become less random when I exercise my will upon them.

But the question becomes where, then, does will originate? I take it as a given that there can be no discoverable location either inside or outside the mind. The only requirement, for consciousness, is that there be some consistency in my responses such that I can be identifiably me. I have to operate at some remove from random in order to be said to exist as a conscious being. And for this narrow purpose I would have to consider the informed reactions of sentient animals to be extravagant extrapolations from random, but random nonetheless. Or perhaps less random than human behavior, since we can know them only by their actions, and we can know one another by our faces and by our words and by our style (it may be simpler for a human to enact another human and to make a fool thereby, than for any animal to enact another).

But it seems fairly certain that at the reductive level at the extremes of scale where consciousness is supposed to exist, there will be no extensionless location for the mythical "I". And there will be, therefore, no directionality to time. Intention arises from the stirring of yin/yang relations "in" the borderless mind. And it's carried forward by the random motion of character's momentum, which already got its start elsewhere.

So here's how to re-construe a misguided test for precognition as a proper test for divergence from chance in the operations of desire: learn to read. Fall in love. Find a truth that's non-metaphorical and then believe in it.

Or, if you would be less a fool, then bet a head against a long running string of tails and try to maintain a straight definition for properly unbiased coins. Your wager will always be against your trust and never against your future (if you can find a distinction there).

This, as it always shall be, is a matter for choice and not for testing. Would you step out into the void, apart from any of those other spinners of discourse webs, to prove that you have free will? Or would you thus be left alone, the only free willy on the planet, though dead for that, among a multitude of servants.

It is a condition of my consciousness that I remain blind to my future. A noble test.

Consciousness Explained!

Consciousness ExplainedConsciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yet another book which magically escaped my attention, though reading it would have promoted my understanding of so much. Better late than never, eh?

And as always, there was no program to my finding it. An old re-met friend rather, who must have been remembering me as I once was well over 30 years ago, lent it to me. He thought the book had my name written all over it.

Indeed! Nor do I wish to lay claim to that identity I would name for myself, acknowledging readily that most of what I call myself is at best character-based response to happenstance. As to the enactor of my conjectured character, we may forget him as readily as that creature which eats its brains once they've served the purpose of lodging it.

I can find nothing with which to disagree here. Astonishingly to me, I also find that consciousness has indeed been explained. I have no further questions, or rather the questions can be left aside and the work turned to more interesting matters.

Such as, for a quick instance, how is it that we can rid our minds of those harmful parasitic memes which would harness our apparently hard-wired self-aggrandizement compulsions. What political arrangements might make us act otherwise than to incorporate any and all techniques for manipulation of the symbolic discourse of money toward our maximal individual corporeal advantage at the expense of any cultured ground?

For so long as the Big Questions remain unanswered, there will always be some convenient jog to excuse whatever local pleasure or convenience we can buy at some discount from ever-attenuating meanings for value. Profit extensible to infinity on misdirection alone such as would cause P.T. Barnum to blush. Let me sell you self-confidence with that logo.

Quite simply, whatever consciousness is, it will not outlast our physical implicated being which is continuous with the Earth together with whom we have evolved to this point. My mind extends - there are no bounds - into all of that stuff which can be understood in principle, but also into that which cannot be comprehended. Chance will forever exceed my grasp, else what's a meta for?

It is the stuff of chance we will destroy for so long as answers remain deferred. There will be no end to our manipulations of words, of money, of tools of every sort because, as with a siren pitching ever higher, we will not stop. There is no ending, and so enthusiasm for ever-more is the only forever.

Enough! I mean honestly. Just as it sets out to do, this book defines the question and along the way discards those questions which still compel so many among us to defer our very responsibility because it is so pleasurable to imagine more perfect unions.

If, in other words, there were to come about some critical mass of readers who have mastered this work, we could finally begin engagement in those discourses which might wrest humanity from the degeneration which is attendant upon inhabitation by those memes in whose thrall our brains now labor.

And in that sense, this must be the most important book I, for one, have ever read. By limiting the field for proper questioning it has in fact already answered that which by its end remains, its author claims, conjecture. Will enough of us learn to read it before it's become too late? It makes a nice dream that enough of us shall, which finally will not only explain consciousness but create it.

Nice work!!

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