Archive for March, 2014

Doing the numbers

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I recently finished ‘Calculus for Dummies.’ The book is just what I was looking for: a plain description of the operations, and a simple explication of what exactly calculus might be about – which is mainly rates and measurements of real-world phenomena.

It was a bit of a self-revelation, because for decades my memory of high-school calculus has been of something I paid attention to for three weeks – then lost track of. Apparently not quite, for a considerable amount of the reading seemed almost familiar.

I finished the book none too soon, really, because that very day I encountered a history of physics in a biography of Niels Bohr, and suddenly things were being explained in terms of derivatives and summations. By golly, I recognized what’s going on!

I’ve been looking at biographies because it’s a great way to survey history, politics, and science all at once. The biographies of physicists¬† and mathematicians also offer insight into why any of us are so motivated to do something so hard in the first place. Often, at least in earlier days, this involved an urge to believe in something absolute, like a physical law, that exists without humans and will be here long after we’re gone. Sort of a religious thing, in fact, and the language is mathematics.

I’m beginning to get a sense of how to be a motivated scientist (as distinct from other sorts of ideologues). The mathematics are absolute and predictively descriptive. By ascribing reality only to the workable formulas, we can hope to fill in a complete picture of our environment – for the first time with control over the causality behind our experience.

I’ve recently read about emotion as being (‘being’ – not ‘arising from’) the neuronal responses of particular brain sections. Doubtless, we’ll learn to poke the critical points and produce (or eliminate) subjective awareness.

The other day somebody manufactured a yeast chromosome. ‘You manufacture one chromosome, you’ve manufactured them all.’ Tomorrow, we’ll manufacture brains which feel love and hear music.

What are we?

Just do the math.


Being and consciousness

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

I can’t really pursue morality in rational science without equating being with consciousness, since consciousness is the only observable part of me, and rational science only admits the existence of what is observable. There’s a huge history around these ideas, and most elite college kids spent so much time thrilling and arguing to the various excursions of twentieth-century authors they’ve been jaded into believing philosophy simply produces no meaningful results. It’s not a coincidence the people who put the ghost back into the machine were writing at the same time Alan Turing was describing intelligent computers.

But morality is the rules of appropriate behavior, and I’m still talking about the assignment of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on a species level, as if it exists, so I take it to derive from a motive for existence, residing in my being, which science (because it only describes things) describes as my consciousness.

Noah made a speech. He’s ten years old now, and though I’d heard him practice, I didn’t really know what to expect. He’d come in third, in his school’s speech competition, so he was ‘only’ an alternate at the county event, which made him very sad (because he loves to perform). Then someone hit on the idea of speaking for the school’s Variety Show, and of course I was there to see it. I’ve faithfully recorded such performances for both my boys throughout their lives, and have a small video collection of these events.

Noah’s speech is about poverty, and it features my own childhood as an example. Pointedly, it refers to my mother being unable to pay bills and rent. Now, my mother is lying in ‘rehabilitation’ and she’s eagerly looking forward to seeing Noah’s recording. I’ve been concerned about this, because she’s likely to view this exposure of her history as offensive, and our relationship is often rocky as it is.

I don’t know if you’ve been to a fourth grade Variety Show, but it’s not high art, and Noah’s entry was second to last. The crowd was thinning and there was rather indiscreet yawning between acts. The Gangnam Style boys in white shirts and dark glasses left the stage to consistent applause, and the lights darkened for Noah’s presentation.

I had my video camera out well in advance and I framed him expertly from beginning to end. I was surprised at his professionalism. He tested the mike. He waited for the crowd to grow silent. He began clearly. He paused with dramatic effect. My own view was different from the substantial crowd’s, because I stared into my three-inch view-finder and he was framed as if on a tiny movie screen.

Noah’s speech was quite something, distinct in kind and quality from the rest of the show. When he concluded, there was the brief silence often following a performance before an audience that’s truly impressed. Then there was long, appreciative, enthusiastic applause. I kept following him with the camera to record the sounds of cheers and clapping, because performers like that – knowing they were enjoyed. At last, I moved my finger toward the Stop button, and only then did I notice, for the first time ever, I had left the device in stand-by. There was no recording, and Noah’s speech exists only in human memory.


Trying to figure out money

Friday, March 7th, 2014

My search for contemporary morality led me into some seriously slow reading. I’m looking to scientists for definitions of right and wrong, and scientists speak weird language. They talk in mathematics. I think there are clues to the appropriate meanings of ‘life’ and ‘consciousness’ in the work of the artificial intelligence people, but after three or four pages of propositional logic, I feel a¬† blissful and irresistible sleepiness.

At any rate, it’s instructive to think about an intelligence that’s not self-reflective. Sort of like being aware of everything except yourself. So here you are, and the things to do turn out to be the most rational things to do, and ‘rational’ means simply, sort of, things you can do. So if you’re equipped to be appreciative or gregarious, be those things to flex the associated circuitry. Choice of action (which starts sounding like knowing right from wrong) gets figured out according to the sorts of rules and objects you run into.

I think about this because I’ve asked a lot of people about specific moral dilemmas and they don’t answer (or they go oblique or argumentative), and I’ve just about figured out: people really don’t know. Well, it might not be the right and wrong they don’t know about. We might all be confused by the rapidly changing rules and objects.

What’s happening to money gets interesting when I apply this sort of thinking, because money is kind of the quintessential way in which people have sought worldly expressiveness over the generations. (A guy pays twenty laborers to put in a garden for him, and sweeps his arm across his horizon, proclaiming, ‘see the wonderful garden I’ve planted!’)

Money is also about real value, it’s about what people hope something is truly worth, in a way similar to wanting to know what they do is right, because it’s provably true – we’re all trying to force a certain reliability into our futures largely because, unlike many machines, we do self-reflect. And yet, just like morality, money is a fiction; it’s just a story people agree to believe to better organize their lives. The fiction loses power as soon as the rules and objects make it unbelievable.

I wonder if this could happen in the stock market. Haphazardly, I was reading about adversarial search in my Artificial Intelligence handbook about the same time a piece of stock I own started ‘inexplicably’ going up in value. Since I know most stock trades today are chosen by computer programs using lots more than simple adversarial search algorithms, I realized – as I sat there watching a particular trading screen – I was watching a machine game; like computers playing chess. Computers play chess much better than humans now, and no-one would even think of trying to win.