Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

The crimes of animals

I recently came across discussion of the fact that, in medieval times, animals were often put on trial for various crimes. This web page describes such occurrences in detail and includes this delightfully grisly anecdote.

Such was the case on June 14, 1494, when a pig was arrested for having “strangled and defaced a young child in its cradle, the son of Jehan Lenfant, a cowherd on the fee-farm of Clermont, and of Gillon his wife.” During the trial, several witnesses explained that “on the morning of Easter Day, as the father was guarding the cattle and his wife Gillon was absent in the village of Dizy, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the said pig entered during the said time the said house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child, which, in consequence of the bites and defacements inflicted by the said pig, departed this life.”

After listening to the evidence, the judge read out his verdict: “We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed, that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood near and adjoining to the gallows and high place of execution …”

The pig ate a face! I feel a little less guilty about eating bacon.

The nature of work

There’s a book that came out recently arguing that people are working more than ever and this is causing a rise in anxiety. It certainly seems a sound premise. But I’ve seen few rebuttals saying, no, people are in fact not working more than ever, we actually have more free time. And, when you think about all these stories you’ve heard about people in 1750 getting up at 6 a.m. and working on the farm until dusk it also sounds true. People of the past did not live leisurely lives.

Can both statements be true? I think, in a sense, yes. It comes down to how we work. In the past, you might work a lot but it was a fairly uninterrupted process – you woke up, knew what you were going to do and did it. You might be working a lot but there was a certain flow to it. Nowadays, you might start to work on editing a Word doc, then you get an email saying there’s an emergency and you have to track down a powerpoint doc, then you finish that and you have to get the kids to soccer practice, the you got back to the Word doc and 20 minutes later you need to answer another email, then a call comes in… etc. I’m overstating for dramatic effect, but you get the picture. Though you may be working less in pure volume of hours, it’s a harried, distracted kind of process. And one that probably takes more cognitive energy than running tasks on a farm 15 hours a day.

I have at certain points in my life been in situations where the entire day was spent doing computer work (often for weeks at a time). I would wake up, sit down at the computer and be there all day, aside from eating and bathroom breaks. It sounds awful and in some ways it was but you brain achieves a certain kind of clarity. You can basically ignore all distractions, phone calls email etc. There’s really something almost meditative about that state.

News blackout

I wrote recently that I was of the opinion that the modern news is a negative force that should be avoided. Over the past month I’ve been engaged in a news blackout and I feel greatly enriched. I’m less tense, more optimistic and don’t feel like I’m missing a thing.

To celebrate, I’m thinking of taking a vacation soon to the relatively unknown nation of the Ukraine. I’ve been shopping for tickets and have found low prices on Malaysian Airlines. They seem like a dependable, trouble free operation. I think it will be a enjoyable adventure.


Return of the Rockets!

Oddball electronic duo Daft Punk recently won a Grammy for their song “Get Lucky.” Below is their Grammy performance of the tune; they are joined by several artists including Stevie Wonder. The robot-suited members of Daft Punk don’t appear until a couple minutes in.

I have to point out that the French Daft Punk are clearly influenced by another French pop group. The Rockets, who were active during the 70s. Compare and contrast.

I, being one who feels we need more robots in music, enjoy both groups.

Upgrading site

This is just a general FYI. I’m going to being updating the instance of the WordPress app that supports this blog. Since all sorts of things can go wrong with that process I figured I should put the word out. If you hear of a major city being destroyed it probably stems from an error in this updating process.


I was sitting at breakfast today, having great thoughts, and an interesting question came to mind. The moons of other planets have names. Does our moon have a name?

Ask and Astronomer has the answer.

Moroccan drivers

I’ve mentioned that I’ve taken two trips to Morocco in recent years. One of the things I’ve seen there and have always meant to blog about is the utter chaos that is traffic. Cars and mopeds zip past each other and pedestrians (and donkeys and cats), always seeming a second away from a collision. People race their vehicles through alleyways with barely an inch on each side. Even if you, as a pedestrian, get a walk signal at a light, cars turning right can still turn and it’s your job to stay out of the way. The only other place I’ve seen with traffic that dangerous is Juarez, Mexico.

Here’s a great little video demonstrating this:

However, despite the cacophony, accidents are still rare*. On my most recent trip to Morocco I started to pay attention to why this is. One reason, I think, is that people are much better focusing on not where other vehicles are, but where they are going to be. They’re essentially applying the logic behind the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Moroccan drivers are aware of where all the other vehicles are going to be in the next five seconds and steer accordingly.

* In Casablanca, I did once come across a crowd gathered around a man who’d been injured by a vehicle.

Of course, there’s one major difference between Moroccan and American and European drivers. In Morocco – a Muslim country – drivers are overwhelmingly male. (I don’t think I ever saw a female driver there.) Women are famously challenged when it comes to spatial perception which, obviously, is oft used in driving. It’s possible that driving in 1st world countries is so cautious because we need to accommodate the weakest drivers on the road e.g. women. Moroccans have no such limitation.

Ha! Just wanted to get the chicks worked up there. There’s actually a lot of evidence that women have less accidents than men, though one could debate whether that’s due to better driving skills or just more caution.

UPDATE: Here’s another crazy Morocco traffic video:

The cost of music

Time magazine (it’s a famous mag you may have heard of) notes that Radiohead’s Thom Yorke is pulling some of his music from Spotify. Essentially he feels he’s getting gyp’d by the streaming service (as many do.) This section in the article caught my eye.

Reports from acts like Damon Krukowski of Damon and Naomi, folk artist Erin McKeown and cellist Zoe Keating indicate that independent acts make around half a cent per song stream on Spotify. That’s a pittance compared with the 7¢ to 10¢ an artist can expect to earn from a song download on iTunes and even further removed from what artists earn from physical CD sales.

However, that’s a something of an apples to oranges comparison. A single stream on Spotify covers a single listen whereas if you download a song you can listen as often as you want. Crunching the numbers here and it seems 20+ listens of a download would actually mean the artist is getting paid less than they would were the listener launching Spotify for each listen.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that downloads on iTunes do not cost 7-10¢ – they’re generally around a dollar. So where is the rest of the money going? According to this the label gets the big cut, Apple gets a about a third and the rest goes to the artist.

Without getting into a debate about the fairness of these numbers, I can’t see how this can be a sustainable model to encourage the creation of music. I think right now there are still a lot of people creating music because of the “glamour” associated with it (myself included.) But if musicians are eventually understood to be idiots doing a lot of hard work for nothing, that glamour will fade.

As a side point here: I actually dug up some of Radiohead’s music on Spotify last night. (The band’s music is still there; Yorke only pulled some solo and side band material.) I’ve never really dug them despite the fact that many herald them as the Jesus Christ of music. I listened to some selections from their “OK, Computer” album and… it wasn’t bad. Not the greatest thing ever, but certainly something I’d listen to again.

Can we upload our consciousness into a computer?

You see are certain amount of conversation in futurist circles about the idea of people living forever by uploading their brains into a computer. The idea is that if the brain is “simply” a collection of (albeit very complex) circuits sending signals to each other (these circuits are the neurons and collections of neurons linked in the brain) then we should be able to map out a person’s neural circuitry and replicate it with virtual circuitry in a computer. The makes sense if you believe that your self— your personality/character –– is a result of the specific structure of your neural connections (and there’s a lot of evidence to support that view.) The virtual circuitry of the computer brain would not decay the way our human “meat circuitry” does and thus people could live forever.

The problem I’ve always had with this theory is that it sounds more like cloning than uploading consciousness. I could be sitting here in my body and maybe you duplicate all the complex circuitry of my brain but you end up only with a virtual brain that thinks exactly like me. My consciousness is still stuck here in my decaying (though quite beautiful) body.

However, I was recently musing on a thought experiment described in Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works.” Let’s say you have a functioning conscious brain sitting around somewhere. Let’s say you replace one neuron in that brain with a metal wire that sends electrical signals in the same way as the neuron it’s replacing (this may be an impossibility right off the bat but stick with me here.) Then you replace a 100 more neurons in the same way. Then a 1000 more etc. until you’ve replaced all the brain neurons with wire counterparts. Would during this process the brain’s consciousness move from meat circuitry to wire? Or would it get lost in the process?

I don’t know and nobody does. But it might work.

However I suspect one error here is the idea of thinking of consciousness as a force or spirit that can be transferred from one shell (e.g. brain or set of circuits) to another. We are presuming that our own consciousness or self is, at the very least, continuously inhabiting our own brains (at least until we go to sleep or get knocked out.) But I wonder if it’s more a situation where our consciousness continually rises out of our current brain state from moment to moment and because we have access to memories we have a sense of a continuing self? In which case that self is something of an illusion. (This is certainly not my idea; it’s the crux of the book “The User Illusion.”)

In effect I’m saying, not only can we not move our consciousness from one shell to another, we can’t even maintain it in a single shell. It’s only because if the fact that our consciousness semi-reliably arises out of our brain in a familiar condition that we have the sense of continuity.

I dunno. This gives me a headache.

On vacay

Should have formally announced this earlier but I’m on vacation and won’t be posting much until I get back in later June. Kiss a cat!