Friday, September 25, 2009

Of Interest

(Picture from here.)

Frankly, I've been very busy in the last couple of weeks. So: no comments on the state of the world.

Both of you are probably glad.

Enjoy the links.

Wall of Idiots
Lies about Cap and Trade
Lies about COLA for Social Security
The Last Tree of Tenere
Eric Cantor, R-VA
Steve King, R-IA
Dying from lack of insurance
Bob McDonnell
Offshore wind NIMBYism
Repealing climate change legislation

Links of Interest
Cheap > Good
Dinosaurs had the earliest feathers
Caveman Science Fiction
Nicotine potentiates nicotine addicting memories
Lunar water and here and here
The Pi Electrobike and here
The Belonio stove
We're living in toy land
Adak "National Forest"
Galco Soda Pop Stop
Mary Nohl House
Coffee: Start to Finish
The Gates of Hell
3D Printing in glass
Greenhouse Rock
Erasing dark energy

Cheap centrifuge from an eggbeater
Pistons from PVC
Mechanical gate
R/C Hovercraft
Drawer organizer
A better helping hand
Pumpkinseed kayak
Slide copier

Monday, September 21, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: The Whole Man

(Picture from here.)

I read a lot of John Brunner in the sixties and seventies. I found him lest interesting as time went on. The last book I read by him was The Children of the Thunder, which I didn't like at all. He's most famous for Stand on Zanzibar, a novel about overpopulation. I like SOZ fine but I think Harry Harrison's novel, Make Room! Make Room!, has a better take on the issue.

The Whole Man isn't a lot like Brunner's other works to my mind. Most of his other works, like a lot of science fiction in general, are about big issues: overpopulation (SOZ), the failure of humanity to encompass information (The Shockwave Rider), the failure of alien civilizations (Total Eclipse), etc.

TWM, by contrast, is completely driven by the characters. There is a backdrop of the world but the narrow focus of the novel on the individuals makes it a better work.

The synopsis: Gerald Howson is born during a period of civil unrest in, ostensibly, England. The unrest was quelled by the invasion of UN troops-- signifying a strong planetary role for UN pacification. He's born deformed, one shoulder higher than the other, one log longer than the other, etc. His mother doesn't really want him but doesn't want to risk getting rid of him, either. He grows up in this environment.

When he's about 20, his telepathic gift shows up and he uses it to tell stories to a deaf-and-dumb girl. Both of them are in danger of succumbing to what is called a catapethic grouping, when the power of the telepathist's projected images overcome the natural senses such as hunger, thirst. Such groupings can be fatal.

Howson is discovered and captured prior to this happening. He has been discovered by the raw power of his gift. His gift is a consequence of his deformity.

The story is in three parts: early life and discovery, some time later when he has learned how to use his power and the seminal case that shows how his life is essentially empty, the journey he makes to find out who he is and what he wants-- to become "The Whole Man" of the title. A good synopsis, but a poor review, can be seen here.

By and large it is not as well regarded as his other works. I find this astonishing.

TWM has its issues. Its biology is suspect even by the standards of the time. It is a bit mired in the psychological approaches of the time. It is, perhaps, a bit too episodic.

But it showed me a road in fiction that I found exciting.

My thinking is forcibly wedded to reality-- not necessarily a technological reality but a human reality. That means when I look around the world and see humans doing things and look in fiction I expect to see similar things. If I pick up a heroic fantasy where the hero beats all odds to bring down the king and rule in his stead, I expect all of the knock on effects of a coup as we have seen when kings in our world have been knocked down-- power vacuum effects, revenge by the family, changes of alliances, etc. If the king is knocked down and the hero lives happily ever after, my brain says fairy tale and goes on disappointed.

That is what makes TWM so interesting to me. Given the world of the novel, nothing happens to Howson that is not character driven. He is discovered by virtue of something he does. What he does derives from the austerity of his life. His resistance to learning to use his gift derives from his personality and needs. His failure to find fulfillment in that gift also comes from his personality-- he's satisfied one part of his life and not another. His final success, and the resulting gift from his friends, completes him in a satisfying manner. No world is save. No heroes. Nothing like that.

It is a journey to self, analogous to Jung's individuation. It is further made interesting because the telepathy itself modifies the individual, much like the ability to do higher mathematics or have great personal understanding or athletic ability modifies the personality of the individual.

I knew early on I wanted to write speculative fiction. I knew I wanted to write about moral decisions-- though I didn't really articulate the concept until much, much later. But TWM was the first novel that seemed to encapsulate what I wanted to do with my fiction.

It gave me a perspective on fiction I have used to this day.
Wall of Idiots
Lies from the RNC
Lies from the DNC
Lies from progressives
Conservative lies about health care and breast cancer
Conservative response to Obama's school speech
CPR lies about health care
Eric Cantor's gender lies
Lies about stamps
Lies about China
Plastinated cadaver sex
Conservative sex ad
Catholic conspiracies
Ian Pilmer

Links of Interest
Happy Birthday, H. G. Wells!
Haumea and here
NASA Launch Systems
Light a gril in 30 seconds and here
Gene therapy for monkeys to get color vissiiooon
Salt and pepper battery
Levitating mice
Microwave cold spot artifact
The thankless job of the FDA
Steampunk Motorcycle
Weird things fall from the air
Give geoengineering a chance

Paper monster automata
Altoids Tin Bread Baker
Dress from a button down shirt
Beneficial bug houses
Bandaid in the woods
Downloadable papercraft
Low melt casting alloys
V: low cost rice thresher
Baskets from gas bottles
Sailboat in a closet
Small, precise holes
Gray water system
Secret image sculpture
Carbonated beverages
Overboard rescue
Battling tops
Bamboo bike frame
Clean a knife
Filleting a fish

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Joe Wilson, Chucklehead

(Picture from here.)

Much as I would like to say the animal to the left is Joe Wilson, Congressman from South Carolina, it is not.

Joe Wilson isn't that nice.

I'm not going to go into all of the reasons this sort of nastiness is objectionable. That is better articulated here.

What is truly unfortunate about all this is how it has been completely embraced by the right. Coulter, for example, refers to Wilson as "America's greatest living statesman". (Of course, Coulter is incapable of not lying nor is she capable of citing her statements. But I will. Here's the article.)

Cousin Joe is now the darling pet rabid squirrel of the right.

God. I miss the Republican Party.
Wall of Idiots
Winner of the MJ Monument Competition: God, I hope this is sarcastic.
Deaths due to lack of Insurance
Omission Control
Tim Pawlenty
The 9-12 Project-- or anything else Glenn Beck supports
Glenn Beck, (and here) a Father Coughlin for the modern American

Links of Interest
5 essential things to know about evolution
Conspiracy theorist convinces Neil Armstrong moon landing was faked
Obama conspiracy theories
Visualizing Health Care
Happy colonoscopy
Life cycle of chronic wasting disease in animals
The drying lakes of Mars
The sun dims understanding on global warming consequences
Hubble is back.
Classical behavior in a quantum world
The Great Earth Oxidation Event
V: Victorian Insect House

Ultimate fog maker
Build a strawbale house: Step by Step
Low Tech Links
Water powered cable train
Burning Man Skills and here
Water bottle launcher
Loft bed
Homemade vanilla extract

Friday, September 11, 2009


(Picture from here.)

[Two men standing next to a car. One is Tom Coleman, owner of the car. He is smoking a cigarette. The other is Frank McCarthy, a passer by.]

Frank: Nice car.
Tom: Thanks.
Frank: If you need a phone to call a truck--
Tom: No. The car is fine. I just pulled over to have a smoke.
Frank: Didn't want to hurt the upholstery?
Tom: Exactly.
Frank: Me, too. My wife won't let me smoke in the house. Got a light?
[Tom supplies a light]
Frank: Frank McCarthy.
Tom: Tom Coleman.
[shake hands]
Frank: That is some fine car. Beautiful lines. Cars are amazing.
Tom: Yes.
Frank: What do you do?
Tom: Automotive engineer.
Frank: Ah.
Tom: Is there a problem?
Frank: No. I just don't believe in automotive engineering. Engineering, surely. But not automotive engineering.
Tom: Really.
Frank: That's right.
Tom: You don't believe in cars.
Frank: Now that would be stupid, wouldn't it? Look at your car, right there. It'd be stupid not to believe in something that's right in front of me.
Tom: I don't understand.
Frank: I don't believe in the engineering of cars.
Tom: What? They just appeared by the will of God?
Frank: They came from a factory, of course.
Tom: Then, where did the factory come from.
Frank: That factory was built.
Tom: By whom?
Frank: That's the mystery, isn't it?
Tom: What mystery?
Frank: The mystery of all these cars. Big cars. Little cars. SUVs. Trucks. Far too many cars to be explained by a single factory.
Tom: I... suppose.
Frank: Then, they all must have been built by different factories, right?
Tom: Okay.
Frank: Therefore, all of the factories that built all of the cars must have existed at the same time.
Tom: Why?
Frank: Well, otherwise, we would have cars that changed over time, right?
Tom: But that's what happened
Frank: No. It's a lie propagated by Lee Iacocca. I don't believe in automotive selection.
Tom: You'd rather believe that all factories were built at the same time.
Frank: That's what it says in the bible.
Tom: What? On the third day he created the Edsel?
Frank: He created creeping and crawling things. Cars included.
Tom: But cars were different only a few years ago.
Frank: They were all simultaneously built. They couldn't have changed over time. Science precludes it.
Tom: Science?
Frank: Where are the transitional forms?
Tom: Like from, say, a Model A Ford to a DeSoto?
Frank: Absolutely.
Tom: But it has four wheels and a steering wheel. An internal combustion engine.
Frank: Look at those wheels. Solid rubber! And the engine has no injectors. Even the gasoline is different. A Model A could never be an ancestor to a DeSoto. Or this Porsche.
Tom: [steps to the car and kicks the wheels]
But look. Round. With treads.
Frank: But hollow and filled with air. Clearly they were created separately.
Tom: By God.
Frank: Of course. Who else?
Tom: What about junkyards?
Frank: What do you mean?
Tom: You can see transitional forms in junkyards.
Frank: No, you can’t. Show me a Model B or a Model C. It doesn't exist.
Tom: But other cars exist in junkyards.
Frank: They were put there by God to test our faith. Who's to say when they appeared.
Tom: There are records.
Frank: But the record is not complete. If it's not complete, it's engineering's defeat.
Tom: You're putting me on. [to the air] Am I on Punk'd or something? Where's the camera.
Frank: Besides, automotive engineering is a detriment to society.
Tom: I beg your pardon.
Frank: Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin-- all drove cars.
Tom: Marx didn't. There weren't any cars then.
Frank: That's what they would like you to believe. It's all part of the global automotive engineering conspiracy.
Tom: I'm a part of a conspiracy?
Frank: You look like a nice boy. No doubt you're an unwitting part of the conspiracy.
Tom: I feel much better.
Look. This is crazy. I can show you connections between all of the cars. Engine designs-- did you know the Model T used a buckboard support like a wagon? Henry Ford reused the design.
Frank: You're mistaken. That didn't happen.
Tom: Sure it did. I can show you pictures.
Frank: It's all part of the conspiracy. Automotive engineers all over the world have faked records and built elaborate automotive hoaxes to show that automotive engineering is real. But science has proven that it can't be.
Tom: I didn't fake any records. I work hard.
Frank: I did say "unwitting", didn't I?
Tom: Look. Don't take my word for it. Just look on the street. Look how they resemble each other. You can see changes over time. Look how SUVs are getting better gas mileage and car engines are getting more efficient.
Frank: That's micro-engineering.
Tom: Micro-engineering?
Frank: Little changes accumulating over time. You can see that everywhere-- clothes, cars, furbys.
Tom: I haven't heard of a furby in years.
Frank: Extinct. What I don't believe is in macro-engineering. The accumulation of changes in style and technology that can create new models or even new lines of cars. That just can't happen.
Tom: Science.
Frank: Yes.
Tom: How did science preclude... Macro Engineering.
Frank: Think about it. Let's say, you want to add a new engine to a car.One that burned unleaded fuel.
Tom: Okay.
Frank: You'd have to retool the engine, change the drive train. Maybe even introduce new technology to control the firing of the cylinders. On top of that, you'd have to create a whole new delivery system with new tankers and trucks. And there'd have to be some way to make sure the wrong gasoline didn't get delivered into the wrong engine. It's far too complicated.
Tom: How do you think it happened?
Frank: Clearly, God created the factories of all types of cars and some died out over time. Same for gasoline stations.
Tom: What killed them off?
Frank: The Flood.
Tom: The what?
Frank: The Great Flood. Noah's flood. Washed them right into the sea. Only the righteous cars survived. And that's why we only have unleaded cars today.
Tom: You're crazy.
Frank: Unwitting tools of the automotive conspiracy have made up their minds without examining the evidence. Lord, if they have eyes can they not see?
Tom: [tosses the cigarette]
Oooookay, then. Well, I've got to get back on the road.
Frank: Remember. You can't be saved if you believe in automotive engineering!
Tom: Good-- well, have fun with that.
Frank: Planting seeds. Planting seeds. Good Lord willing, some might sprout.

Inspired by Pat Buchanan's "essay" on evolution.
Links of Interest
Quantum superpositions of living things
Steampunk, #6

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

So long and thanks for all the consciousness

(Picture from here.)

I've been off line for a bit with work. But I have been thinking about a panel I attended at worldcon.

The panel could be paraphrased as Consciousness: Threat or Menace. The star of the panel was Peter Watts (and here). For the two of you who might remember, I wrote some about his work here.

The premise of the panel was that consciousness was expensive both computationally and in terms of required biological resources. There was nothing a conscious machine could do that an unconscious machine could do better and more efficiently. An interview with Watts is here. To quote him, "Blindsight didn't start out as a radical stand on the maladaptiveness of consciousness. I'd just spent the better part of a decade musing over what consciousness might be good for and I kept coming up blank." This rolls into zombie consciousness (and here) pretty quickly. One statement made at the panel went something like this: I worked hard a my thesis, tried to solve the central problem and got nowhere. Then I went to sleep and woke up with the answer. There's this mechanism inside that solves the problem and consciousness takes the credit.

There were other, equally contentious, statements made. One was that there appeared to be no good reason for consciousness to evolve-- as Watts said in the article cited above, "no tapeworm is going to argue that it is a threat to the body it inhabits, and should therefore be exterminated."

I had my own opinions to pontificate but didn't get the opportunity. That's what blogs are for.

Personally, I think this is the opposing endpoint of the Intelligent Design movement. ID posits a world that is so complex and special (especially in its glorification of human beings) that it had to be made. This no-consciousness movement is analogous. Consciousness is so special and amazing it must be maladaptive; a tapeworm on the underside of the brain. Neither does much to figure out why consciousness is there and both presume a uniqueness in human consciousness that just isn't supported by the facts.

Let's presume consciousness is maladaptive for a moment-- the falsification principle. Consciousness is expensive-- the brain in human beings takes 20% of the energy taken in by the human being. If you look at the way circulation is shifted when the organism is in trouble, the brain is on the same level as heart and liver: essential for life.

Now, if we posit two populations of proto-hominid, one that can save even 1% of that energy by virtue of being unconscious, that would give the unconscious proto-hominid a clear advantage. Yet, no such hominid exists. (I put zombies in the population in the same realm as UFOs. Not there by reason of sanity.) So, we can presume from that thought experiment one of two things: 1) consciousness is adaptive and therefore losing it is maladaptive or 2) the mechanism of consciousness was already ingrained in the genetics of hominids before it became maladaptive and therefore could not be escape. One would presume, therefore, that the precursors of consciousness predate the splitting of humans from the great ape lineage about six million years ago.

That's a long time for any maladaptive qualities of consciousness to reproductively show itself.

There's also the current thinking that chimps, orangutans, bonobos and gorillas are conscious. They pass all of the tests that we apply to ourselves to show consciousness. I suggest, therefore, that consciousness itself cannot be shown to be maladaptive.

But, for the moment, presume that it was, at one point.

Two lines of evidence suggest that, in fact, this hypothesis does not survive falsification either.

The first of these is the mirror test. You place an indicator on a subject unknown and undetectable by the subject without some sort of mirror. Then, detect if the subject determines from the reflection that the indicator is on the subject rather than on some nefarious image in the mirror. This is not an indicator of consciousness, per se, but I submit that it is a necessary precursor to consciousness.

The following animals have passed the test: (See here.) bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, bottlenose dolphins, Orcas, elephants, European Magpies and humans. I also think Irene Pepperberg's work with Alex is sufficient to warrant inclusion. What's interesting is that, because of the bird experiments, the precursors of consciousness were with us back before the dinosaurs-- nearly 250 million years ago. Even if the birds are excluded, the primates branched off of elephants about 60 million years ago.

Watts point of view that consciousness itself might be maladaptive is, I think, incorrect.

But the article quoting Watts is entitled "The Overexpressed Phenotype"", implying that human consciousness might be maladaptive. I think that's a different question and I think the context of Watts statement don't leave any wiggle room there since he continually talks about consciousness in a human dimension. Either he things consciousness is unique to humans (something I think clearly false) or that whatever humans have that is called consciousness is completely and qualitatively different from other animals. Which I think is equally false.

The second line of reasoning is a bit more subtle and zeroes in on the "consciousness takes the credit" concept. This comes from athletic training research. The common term for this is muscle memory.

Muscle memory is a training phenomenon. As athletes work at learning a new skill they think it through. They assimilate what they need to do and model it consciously. Then, as they practice it they move the training out of the conscious mind and deeper into nervous system. Humans are adept at this from skiing to gymnastics. From playing a musical instrument to small talk on dates. It's what we do all the time. It is so ubiquitous in human society that we forget that its actually adaptive. It is, I suggest, one of the supreme uses of consciousness.

We have no idea what animals experience in this way-- the subjective experience of turning training to accomplishment has to date only been communicated between humans. However, reduction in task accomplishment time has been well recognized across species tested from fruit flies to human beings. I'm not saying fruit flies are conscious. But I am saying that consciousness of some sort that resembles ours does occur in many of our relatives and some fairly distant species and can be demonstrated.

To refute the issue described by the "consciousness takes the credit" problem. One could also say, and I think with better support, that the consciousness did all the work of gathering the information, making sense of it, storing it and categorizing it only to have some tiny mechanism come along and put a couple of facts together and take all the credit.

But the problem the consciousness debate exhibits is deeper. Far deeper.

If you look at the skin, hair, muscles, bone, nervous system, teeth and fingernails of mammals and see that they are in mechanism the same, though specialized between groups, why would we expect brains to be so different? Could it be the case that we as humans value our brains and set it apart from all the rest? Would not a horse view the world of hooves similarly? A fish its fins? Etc? This is the fallacy that Alfred Wallace fell into and why, I think, he showed himself to be a lesser mind than Darwin's in the whole evolution story.

By elevating human consciousness in the way many of these philosophers have is to create a problem where in fact none exists. This is the same sort of reasoning found in ID. If you pare down what is defined by consciousness to be only human, only recent, and (I think) only destructive western civilization, the conclusion you come to is that it is maladaptive. But the problem is a manufactured one. It has no basis in actual fact and there is, I think, no evidence for it.

I'm not sure the Disposable Civilization is, in fact, adaptive. We may kill ourselves. But in terms of Darwinian evolution, we have the reproductive success of all reproductive successes, all due to human motivation, which comes from consciousness.

It may be that we ultimately run into a civilization of ants that function as well as we do but without consciousness. I see no evidence for it in our own little biological experiment but our corner of the universe is only a sample of one. I, for one, believe that if we do run into people crossing the void to say hello, that it will be the motivation of consciousness that pushed them there just like it has us.

Wall of Idiots
The American Justice System
The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition
Arlington, Texas, School District


Links of Interest
Hot Ice Computer
Chimps with spears
Solar Coal
Gasoline from vinegar
Avenging Narwhal Playset and others. Including bacon mints
Flowers for Algernon
Dawn Mission
Virus induced prostate cancer and here
Genetic origin of the four chambered heart
Reverse engineering the brain
Light Sport Aircraft Manufacturers

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More idiots.

On my Wall of Idiots section there are a lot of references to idiots from the right. Some people I know have rebuked me, saying that I represent more issues from the right than from the left because I am biased.

Well, I am biased. But I don't think that's the reason.

I think the reason there are more representatives on the Wall of Idiots from the right than the left is that there are more idiots on the right than the left.

It's like corruption. Do you want your corruption wholesale or retail? Retail is when individual politicians get their hands caught in the cookie jar or are found with cookie in Argentine. Wholesale corruption is when you appoint judges or change the law so the corruption isn't illegal. Sometimes it's mandatory. Eliot Spitzer is retail corruption. Tom DeLay and the K Street Project is wholesale corruption.

The big issue of right vs. left in this country comes down to money. We have Fox "News" and all its ilk, including Rush Limbaugh, etc., that peddle for the right. They make a lot of money and they have a lot of money to swing around. The left doesn't have these sort of money presence in the media.

I will say that I miss a good right wing. The conservative ideology is not just idiocy. There are critical things to say about liberalism and government run programs. But that should be a debate. People who stand on the sidelines and make up things are debating the issue, they're trying to stampede constituents for a purpose.

And their purpose is not mine. Or yours.

Wall of Idiots
Lies about Obama's Montana Town Hall
Lies about how good American health care is
Lies in the RNC's Bill of "Rights"
Lies in August
Lies about HR 3200
Lies from the Club for "Growth"

Political Links
Stronger Prospects for Health Care