Sunday, August 8, 2010

Technology is Social

Matt Ridley gave a talk at Oxford for TED that is pertinent to McLuhan. McLuhan discussed the idea of technological determinism. My interpretation of Ridley's talk is that he is analyzing the reasons that make technological determinism work. We are human because we are technological deterministic. The supposed disjointness between technological and social determinism is only an illusion. Technology comes from culture because humans and thus human cultures are built to exchange. If we are prevented from exchanging then we lose technology. The social and the technological are aspects of humanity that evolved together - according to my interpretation of Ridley anyway.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Death as an Invention of Evolution

I would be surprised if this was not a well-known idea but it is something that I have never heard anyone discuss. For early life, there was no death. A single celled organism dies not die. It propagates itself by division. A single celled organism does not grow old. it just transforms into new multiple versions of itself. Death is an invention of evolution that came with multi-cellular organisms

Death can be a evolutionary advantage for a species in that it removes members from a population after they have served their evolutionary purpose of reproducing. The removed members will not compete for resources with the newly generated members who have a longer history of evolutionary learning behind them. This allows for a more responsive speed of evolution for a species and hence better adaptation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Technological and Environmental Arrogance and Ignorance

This is not my anecdote but of someone I worked with for several years in the 1970s. He worded for an aerial survey company and part of their job was to do magnetic surveys and aerial mapping. The company had a contact in he South American country of Guyana. They had a camp on one of the jungle rives to support some of their survey work. It cam about that some of the electronic equipment at the camp failed and he was asked to go there to repair it. He was taken there along with another employee on board a jet helicopter. The helicopter carried his equipment as well as some supplies for the camp. The helicopter could not land at the camp and so landed on a sand bar in the middle of the river. A power launch from the camp would come to pick them up.

Everything went as planned. The helicopter landed on the sandbar and they unloaded their equipment. The helicopter took off on its return journey and they waited there for the launch. They stood beside their equipment as he said like waiting for a bus. Then the realization came upon them. They were standing on a sandbar in a jungle river. There were caiman (a form of alligator) swimming around them in the river. My colleague’s fellow employee observed that they didn’t even have a pointy stick to defend themselves.

What I took from this is how we take the protection and comforts of our technological society for granted. They cam to the sandbar as full-fledged members of a technologically elite species. They were at the apex of nature and had no fear of other species. The helicopter left and they were on their own. They were no longer invulnerable but were intensely in danger. At any second, a major predator could have attacked them.

I find this anecdote relevant to many of the environmental debates that go on. It is not just one side that forgets this vulnerability. It appears that it is a common blind spot for all political discussions on the environment. The environmentalist sees nature as beneficent but forgets that nature is beneficent if one is a the top of the food chain. For members of vulnerable species, nature is the process by which they get eaten. Those opposed to environmentalism believe that our technology is all powerful and independent of nature. They forget that our technology rests on the basis of the exploitation of natural systems. If these systems are disrupted then there is no guarantee that our society can devise technology to address the disruption.

So we have a technological and environmental ignorance coupled with a technological and environmental arrogance. Owe forget hw dependant we are both on nature and technology. We engage in futile disputes that deny that reality of one side or the other. This is what I see as so wrong, in the current environmental debates and especially of eh AGW debate. We need nature and we need technology. Without either we are vulnerable and will not survive..

Monday, October 12, 2009

Synesthesia and Creativity - The Muse is in the Interconnections

In the previous blog posting, I teid to explain the recent findings that synesthesia is a relatively common condition and results from interconnections between the various sensory components in the brain. So, for example, the colour region may be interconnected with the region responsible for identifying letters. With this the letter "B" could be associated with the colour pink So the subject would report B as being pink.

Interconnections such as this have been proposed by the computer scientist David Gelernter as the basis for human reasoning. He did so in a book entitled "The Muse in the Machine" Gelernter recognizes that the mind is a functional part of the human being. It evolved to help the entire being function within its environment and to say the same thing its functions are defined by the need of the human being to function within that environment. The mind is not an abstract device separated from reality as is the common assumption.

Gelernter identifies the bases of the mind's mechanisms as emotions and memory. By emotion, Gelernter means a way by which the organism can capture and characterize its current state. The commonly known emotions of fear and hunger are obvious examples of this but Gelernter expands this to include very fine-grained feelings that blur the lines between the distinct feelings that are commonly viewed as emotions. He shows how a composite feeling of contentment and anticipation on a boat trip can be viewed as a distinct emotion, for example. With this ability to finely characterize a situation by an emotion, the organism can identify similar situations that it met in the past. It can then select its actions based on the success or failure of actions in past similar situations. His view of the mind is similar to the common engineering techniques of case-based and memory-based reasoning.

However Gelernter expands on these common models by showing how his views on emotions link to poetry as an example of a higher human faculty that is commonly thought to be unexplainable at the functional level. Gelernter identifies that the method for matching of situations by emotional memory may by either loosely of tightly focussed. Tight focus is conventional reasoning in which details are important. Loose focus allows apparently disparate situations to be matched based only on the structure of the connections in the constituent emotions. This type of reasoning is what Gerlernter states as the source of creativity. It is what allows a poet to find common ground with his reader as Gelernter demonstrates with his comparison of his idea to T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative.' Gelernter shows his ideas with examples from the English Romantic poets and from apparently inexplicable passages from the Bible which can be explained as examples of loosely focussed emotional connectivity.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Synethesia and Creativity

Synesthesia is a form of perception in which sensory impressions are crossed. So, in one example, people will experience colour as a musical tone. Higher level impressions can be crossed as well so alphabetic letters can be experienced with colours. So, for example, the letter ‘B’ may be experienced with a shade of pink. It had long been thought that synesthesia was a rare condition. As such, it did not receive much research interest. However current research has found that at least one percent of the population exhibit synestesic perception. It is not a rare condition. However people who experience it are surprised to find that others do not share their experience. They learn to keep silent about their perceptions.

Current research has shown that synesthesia arises because of connections between centres of perception. So using the colour/letter example above, a brain scan will show the region concerned with colour will be activated when the letter ‘B’ is presented to the subject. It was thought that these cross connections were unusual but it has been found by research that they are a standard part of the structure of the brain. In subjects without synesthesia, these connections are inactive but they are present. A research question arises as to why thee interconnections exist if their functioning is suppressed.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Sokal and Postmodernism - His Conclusion Does Not Follow

The physicist Sokal published a paper in a leading postmodernist journal which he later revealed to be full of nonsense. He used this as evidence that postmodernism itself was nonsense. This conclusion does not follow from Sokal's evidence.

Sokal demonstrated that a postmodernist journal would publish a paper full of nonsense. A paper full of nonsense passed peer review and was published. Now Science and Nature have published articles that were clumsy frauds. These fraudulent papers passed the peer review of the two jounral that are regarded as the most prestigious in scicne publishing.

So Science and Nature have published nonsense in the form of clumsy frauds. Postmodernist journals have published nonsense in the form of Sokal's deliberate hoax.

Soka;'s comnclusions do not follow from his evidence

Maxwell's Demon as the Observer

For examples in which observation changes the obeserved, check out the idea of Maxwell's Demon.

Maxwell conceived of a system in which there were two chambers. A demon controlled a valve between the two chambers. The demon could observe the velocity gas molecules that approached the valve. If the molecule were energetic, the demon would open the valve if the molecule was in the left chamber (say) and was traveling to the right chamber. If it were in the right chamber, the demon would keep the valve closed. Similarly, the demon would do the same for slow or less energetic molecules traveling to the left. Fast molecules would travel to the right chamber and stay there and slow molecules would travel to the left chamber and stay there. Thus the right chamber would become hot and the left chamber would become cold. This temperature difference could be used to drive a heat engine such as a steam engine.

Thus Maxwell's demon could obtain energy for free and could create a perpetual motion machine in violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It took may years of research to discover why Maxwell’s Demon could not exist and the Second Law would not be violated. It turned on the analysis of what “observation” meant. If it meant observing light that had interacted with the molecules then the amount of energy that would be used in these interactions would overcome any advantage that the Demon could generate. The Second Law was preserved.

Thus there needs to be a definition of what “observation” and “observer” menas and how observation can be affected.