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The curious case of Thad Roberts

I was just over at youtube watching an interesting video titled “Visualizing 11 Dimensions.” The video attempts to demonstrate how to think about a concept popular in physics, that the world is made up of more dimensions than the three spatial dimension (and one of time) that we see around us. Frankly, I still struggle with the idea after watching the video.

The video lecturer, Thad Roberts, turns out to have a personal history almost as interesting as his ideas. Intellectually gifted he went to work as an astrophysicist as Nasa. Then…

At age 25 Thad fell in love with a bril­liant and beau­tiful Biology intern at NASA. Wanting to give her­ the moon (lit­er­ally), Thad mas­ter­minded the infa­mous moon rock caper and made off with lunar sam­ples. 33 years to the day after Neil Armstrong first picked up a piece of the moon, Thad sold some of those pieces and landed in the middle of a gov­ern­ment sting.

Thad was sen­tenced to 100 months in fed­eral prison for his actions. Though he would never repeat those acts, Thad doesn’t regret how things turned out. Despite the iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, and hard lessons that defined those years, he notes that without that time of intense ded­i­ca­tion and con­stant focus he may have never dived so deeply into ques­tions about the con­struc­tion of our Universe. After coming face to face with his own inse­cu­ri­ties, Thad decided to over­come the odds of his past mis­takes and to once again strive for his dreams. His days in prison were spent teaching, exer­cising, wrestling with the mys­teries of modern physics, and exploring new axiomatic assump­tions that might explain them.

Thad left prison with some­thing more valu­able to him than a safe full of moon rocks – a man­u­script over 700 pages long that lucidly describes how he was led to a new geo­metric axioms for the struc­ture of space­time. The result was quantum space theory (qst), a spe­cific form of super­fluid vacuum theory (SVT), which now stands as a can­di­date for the theory of quantum gravity.

As a side note, I’ll point out one aspect of Robert’s ideas that interests me. I generally tout the belief people are deterministic, that free will does not exist. My general reason, summarized in a sentence, is that our thoughts and actions arise from the firing of our neurons and those neurons are subject to the deterministic laws of classical physics. Critics of this idea often point to the seemingly indeterminate nature of quantum physics as a way out of this challenge. Robert’s view, as I understand it, is that quantum behaviors that appear to be random to our eyes, are in fact determinist when understood as part of a world with more than four dimensions.

The philosophy of past and future tense

For a while now, I’ve been going through the Pimsleur language CDs program for French. I was listening to one on the bus the other day and it got to the explanation as to how you put verbs in past tense; how to say, “I bought something” as opposed to “I am buying something.” In essence, you put the verb “have” in front of the verb, like “I have bought something.” (It’s not quite that simple but that’s the gist.) This is pretty similar to English, where adding “have” puts the experience in the past. If you say, “I have eat something” it sounds like baby talk but gets the point across.

This is an interesting role for the word “have” isn’t it? We think f have as denoting ownership, like “I have a cat.” It’s almost implied that by experiencing something we take ownership of it. We own the experience of having eaten.

And how about future tense? In French, like english, you add the verb for “going.” For example, “I am going to eat a sandwich” makes clear the act will take place in the future. Again, this is curious. We tend to first think of “going” as traveling through space but here it’s almost like you’re saying “I am traveling through time into the future and there I will eat a sandwich.”

I’d be curious how this problem (how to place an action in the past or future) is handled in different languages. It would be quite interesting if all cultures used the same techniques but I’m almost certain that isn’t true. (I seem to recall reading about some tribal culture that really didn’t differentiate between the past and present or future—it was happening in some giant “now.”)

Language, as Wittgenstein noted, really gives illumination into the mind. And our thoughts are limited to the words we can use to express them.

Book promo using my music

One of my tunes was recently used in a promotional video for a horror novel. Check it out:

The dangers of uploading your mind to a computer

I pause to ask my readers a question. Are any of you considering uploading your mind into a computer? I think you should be aware of some potential problems.

The idea might sound crazy, but the possibility of such a thing is oft-discussed by scientists and psychologists who think it may be a real possibility in coming decades. How would such a thing work? First let’s consider what is probably the now mainstream view of the mind. The mind, this view advocates, essentially arises out of the complex, dense circuitry that is the human brain. (Each “circuit” could be thought of as an individual neuron of perhaps group of neurons that perform the same basic function like moving your index finger.) According to this view (which I basically subscribe to) your mind is your brain.

Now, if we could map out a person’s brain network down to very small details—and we seem to be getting closer and closer to this—we could then program that network into a computer and thus recreate that person—their personality, their essence—on a computer. And that person could conceivably live forever.

There are a couple problems so far. One being is that you aren’t really uploading your consciousness to a computer as much as you are simply cloning your mind. That consciousness—the uploaded mind—will live forever. The flesh and blood you will still eventually die as flesh and blood does. Also, it’s still unclear how our subjective consciousness arises our of our complex neural machinery. I could program a robot to respond to the wavelength of light we call red, but would it “see” red in any way comparable to the way we see red? It’s that perception that is really the magic of living. Would an uploaded mind possess this subjective magic or would it merely be a very complex robot? I don’t think anyone can authoritatively say.

Now let’s consider another view of the mind, this one advocated by philosopher David Chalmers among others. This view advocates that the mind extends beyond the realm of the brain into the rest of the physical world. To grasp this notion, take stock of your experience right now. You are seeing things, probably hearing things, maybe tasting and smelling things if you’re reading this over lunch. Your experience, your mindstate, would be very different without this particular outside stimuli. So, in a sense, this stimuli is part of your mind.

Here’s another way to think about it. The more popular “your-brain-is-all-you-are” theory I first mentioned says that your brain arises based on various electrical signals zipping through the circuitry of your brain. But what happens when I look at an apple. Photons bounce off the apple into my brain which results in the firing of neurons that somehow result in the subjective experience of seeing the apple. Is not this pathway of photons going from the apple to my eye similar to the pathway of a firing neuron. So is not every outside component (the apple, photons bouncing off it, etc.) part of my mind?

If Chalmers is on to something then we have a problem with mind uploading. If we upload only the brain part of your mind, not the external environment, we are only uploading part of the mind.

Now, maybe this could be solved. Maybe sensors could be created that would duplicate our senses, even augment them. For example, you could have some chemical sensor that, when provided cheese, fired the neural circuits in the uploaded mind that correlate to the neurons that fired when tasting cheese. But this idea seems a lot more complex than the already vastly complex task of uploading a mind to a computer.

Morning moodiness

Years ago my Dad mentioned to me that he would often lie in bed in the morning worrying about largely inconsequential things. For example, when he was building a house in Montana he would worry about whether or not he had enough material for flooring or whatnot. This surprised me because he was generally the epitomy of cool, of a non-worrier.

The admission also struck me because I have had periods of similar morning anxiety. (Not lately though – I sleep like a baby these days.) Could we (my dad and I), I wondered, share some genetic trait for morning worrying?

Well, I don’t know and may never know. But today I was thinking about this and was reminded of a bit of knowledge I’d picked up at some point. You body tends to make hormones at night and then “use them up” during the day. So in the morning as you wake up, you have peak hormone levels. I also recalled that the hormone cortisol is associated with anxiety. Is cortisol one of these “morning buildup” hormones? A little research on cortisol confirmed that it is.

Blood levels of cortisol vary dramatically, but generally are high in the morning when we wake up, and then fall throughout the day.

That makes sense. Ever get the sense later in the day that you’re too tired to worry? Your cortisol levels have fallen.

So I was thinking about this fact that cortisol is associated with anxiety and moodiness. I considered that there’s a particular time of the month when women are especially moody. (A great Modern Family rerun I recently watched highlighted this.) Is cortisol to blame here?

Indeed.

After ovulation, the empty follicle that once contained the egg begins to secrete the hormone progesterone to thicken the lining of the uterus and prepare it for the possible implantation of an embryo. As progesterone levels rise, you may begin to feel moodier. This happens because progesterone helps the body make cortisol, a hormone that tends to be higher in people who are stressed. If cortisol levels are already elevated because of outside factors, like a busy workweek, the progesterone can cause an excess of cortisol in the body. “If I’m already doing something to give myself high cortisol levels, by the time I get to the second half of my cycle, I’m going to be irritable,” Schwarzbein says.

(I have to say, this article ends with what I consider troubling advice. “If you’re practicing good habits and still have period-related moodiness, contact your doctor, as you could have a hormone imbalance that needs correcting.” Doctors. There’s nothing nature can do that they aren’t eager to “fix.”)

Anyway, this all seems indicative of what I’ve suspected for some time, that we are puppets on a string dancing to the rhythms supplied by our hormone and neurotransmitter masters.

Deep Learning

As smart as computers are, they’re dumb in many ways. For instance, they have a hard time identifying objects in their field of vision. (Their “vision” of course being information sensed by various electronic sensors.) Even though humans can see objects without any effort*, computers stumble on this basic task.

*Actually, even human identification of objects is not flawless. Just yesterday I was looking around for my coffee mug and I realized it was right in front of me. I was staring directly at it, and just had trouble separating it from everything else on the kitchen counter

I’ve been reading a bit about a new process in computers called “deep learning” that is making computers much smarter. (Link goes to wikipedia article.) So much smarter that they are now able to be trained to recognize objects in image files even more accurately than humans. You can present a computer with 20,000 images and ask it to show you all the images with a cat and it will do so. You can then ask specifically for cats with pointy ears and it will do so.

This is pretty interesting when you think about it. How does a computer – a dumb, soulless computer – know to filter out dogs or chipmunks when it shows cats? I imagine it’s categorizing objects by pretty precise categories. A cat’s nose varies from a chipmunk’s in terms of nose size related to the whole face, cats have specific ear types etc. These must be the kinds of properties computers are using to separate cats from other objects.

An obvious and interesting next step would be to have computers create their own images of cats. (Essentially the computer would become an artist.) And perhaps “encourage” them to highlight different properties of cats over other, thus developing an aesthetic style. I’ve talked in the past about computers making art (it’s been going on for a while.) I suspect deep learning will speed things up even more on this front.

Of course, as computers get smarter humans grow anxious. Will they take our jobs? Jeremy Howard, a deep learning architect, has concerns.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It just depends how it’s used. It could be a wonderful thing, because it could allow us to spend our time doing the things we want to do rather than the things we have to do, which is, I think, what humanity has been aiming at for thousands of years. But on the bad side, that by definition puts people out of jobs. Eventually, it puts everybody out of a job.

If we remove the idea of the soul, at some point in history [there's nothing that] computers and machines won’t be able to do at least as well as us. We can argue about when that will happen. I think it will be in the next few decades.

What happens when the amount of things that can’t be automated is much smaller than the amount of people that exist to do them? That’s this point where half the world can’t add economic value. That means half the world is destitute and unable to feed themselves. So we have to start to allocate some wealth on a basis other than the basis of labor or capital inputs. The alternative would be to say, “Most of humanity can’t add any economic value, so we’ll just let them die.”

Morgellons disease

I’ve discussed in the past my interest in psychogenic diseases (though I tend to use the term “psychosomatic.”) What are they? Let’s ask wikipedia.

Psychogenic diseases are physical illnesses that stem from emotional or mental stresses.

I have, for example, talked about the girls of Le Roy who developed weird, twitching body tics though for which no cause could be discovered.

Now I stumble on a Vox article on Joni Mitchell’s bizarre illness called
Morgellons. It’s a disease that causes debillitating pain and the appearence of strange fibers in the skin and flesh. But…

For the past decade, researchers have searched for a biological cause or single underlying factor that might explain the suffering. But they have mostly concluded that Morgellons is “a psychosis or mass-shared delusion.”

In one of the most comprehensive studies to date, published in the journal PLOS, researchers from the CDC collected detailed epidemiological information, medical histories, and skin samples from 115 Morgellons sufferers in Northern California.

“No parasites or mycobacteria were detected,” they reported. The researchers also couldn’t find any environmental explanation for patients’ suffering.

The fiber-like strands on sufferers were mostly just cotton debris, probably lint from clothing. Their skin damage seemed to be caused by nothing more than sun exposure. While some patients had sores, these appeared to have arisen from chronic picking and scratching.

I, of course, am in no position to definitively say whether the disease is real or not. But if it is not, we are again forced to examine a disturbing conclusion, that the mind* alone is capable of inflicting serious distress on on the body. Bizarre.

*Of course, I don’t really believe in a “mind” (in the sense of some non-material soul or whatever); I use the term here to designate the variety of what we call mental processes that go on in the brain.

Cracked on health

You might recall Cracked magazine as a second rate competitor to Mad magazine back when the world had magazines. Cracked has since become a fairly entertaining web portal with articles that are informative and funny. I was pretty impressed with the medical information in this article.

7 Basic Things You Won’t Believe You’re All Doing Wrong

It tackled heady subjects, such as pooping, bathing, sitting and what not. I’ve already adjusted my pooping stance.

On the virtue of being unprepared (a curious note about jazz)

As I think most people know, I play a lot of music. Lately I’ve been working more on jazz and am learning jazz tunes, focusing on my improvisation etc. I’ve started to notice an interesting philosophical question related to this music.

Jazz is considered improvisational music. Players know the chords and the melody but make everything else up on the spot. (Frankly, even the chords and melody are often varied and altered on a whim.) This might sound hard but once you get it down it’s actually pretty easy as well as liberating.

Now, I personally like to know the tunes I’m playing pretty well before I play them live. By this I mean I like to really know the melody, know the chords from memory (as opposed to using a chart) and have some soloing ideas worked out in advance. But I find some people object to this as being over prepared. How can anything spontaneous happen, they might argue, if you have it all planned out in advance? And it’s not a bad point and I presume as I get better I’ll prepare less. But the funny pooint here is that jazz is one of the few pursuits where being unprepared is a virtue.

I suspect this ties in with something I’ve thought about before. Jazz really broke on the scene in the early 1900s, right when a fellow named Freud and his ideas about the unconscious where taking hold. Jazz is essentially music produced “unconsciously.” By this I mean it is not supposed to be planned or written out (aside from some basics); it happens on the spot before the conscious mind has time to analyze anything. How could musicians even know that they could create anything worthwhile (choruses upon choruses of solos for example) without thinking it through? I think Freud and his then burgeoning theories were what convinced them they could.

What is a species?

I mentioned that I have been reading a book by the natural scientist E.O. Wilson. The book is “The Future of Life” and makes his case for what we would call environmentalism. Specifically he focuses on the rapid, man-caused decline of species throughout the world. I believe he wrote the book as a polemic, something to spur people into action.

And for me, at first it worked. You read about the permanent extinction of one species after another and say, “something must be done.” But then you keep reading and a certain malaise strikes. “Aw fuck it… it sounds like an impossible problem.” How exactly can we control the actions of humanity on a planetary scale. Americans can barely get anything done in their country, much less in Africa.

But I have another troubling thought, one I’m sure will anger any reading environmentalists: What exactly are we saving when we save a species from extinction? Or more to the point, do species even exist?

You might recall me exploring a similar point when talking about the controversy over Nicholas Wade’s book on racial differences. Critics of that book argue that the concept of race (a division which correlates to what is often called “sub-species”) is a man-made concept. From a DNA perspective, there really isn’t much separating a black man from a white man from a yellow man etc. (Curious that the only term there that sounds overtly perjorative is “yellow.”)

Of course this observation can be taken further. All labels are merely that, labels. They don’t correspond to any objective truth built into the universe. All words are subjective, though certainly quite convenient.

So what is a species? As I understand it, what separates different species is their inability to mate with each other. Dogs and cats can’t have kids so they are a different species. There are other species that probably could mate but don’t tend to in the natural environment.

There’s a point in the book where Wilson lists several species that were eradicated from New Zealand (I think.) Among these are several versions of something called a hopping mouse. I have to confess reading this thinking, “Is this really the eradication of several species or one? And even if all the hopping mice are gone won’t we still have plenty of regular mice? Is this the calamity Wilson is making it out to be?”

I realize I sound like an utter douchebag to be saying that, but I understand why people start to glaze over when environmentalists list every species of tree frog on the verge of extinction. Non-scientists think of species as categories like “dog” and “elephant.” But in fact the term applies at a more granular* level.

*I have to pause even here and note that the term granular here is again simply a man-made term with no real meaning. The hierarchy it implies does not exist in an objective sense.

This must all seem like meaningless parsing of words designed to induce analysis paralysis. And indeed I do think we should try and save these animals on the verge of extinction. But I’m starting to wonder in treatises like Wilson’s book do more harm than good.