Strange Loops - Blog Archive: May 2007
Strange Loops Journal Archive: May 2007

Blog || Politics || Philosophy || Science || Fiction || Quotes

Non-belief Taking Over First World
May 24, 2007
Permalink ||

If religious belief largely serves to help people deal with poor life circumstances (ailing health, unemployment, etc.) or fear of them, then it seems plausible that religious belief would decline as quality of life improves (i.e. better health care, education, job/social security). Indeed, Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman argue essentially this over at Edge with "Why The Gods Are Not Winning".

They examine numbers on the growth/decline of religious belief/non-belief, and find that the evidence supports the assertion I opened with above. Indeed, in the first world, non-belief seems to be heading toward an imminent take-over (where it isn't already dominant), with religious belief declining. America is the rare exception to this rule mainly because we lack things like universal health care and have a less reliable social security net, so people are stuck with the basic life fears which religion offers an easy answer to.

Anyway, it's an interesting hypothesis, and they offer some data and arguments that make it sound very reasonable.

May 23, 2007
Permalink ||
Humpasaur Jones wrote recently on android sexual rights, but he was really writing more about humans-as-robots. Excerpt:

Ever since I first saw a stage hypnosis show, at a county fair when I was a freshman in high school, I have been shook, shook to the very core of my soul. The fact that someone can put you into a trance, implant suggestions and instructions, then wake you up and smile as you do precisely what you were told to do...that's not entertainment. That's a glimpse at the walls of the prison, folks. That's why I stopped watching TV, right there.

Because the worst part of all is that guys doing these hypnosis shows aren't some sort of Rasputin Psychic Badass gurus - they're just goofy regular guys who can't even dress well. They took some mail-order video lessons and now they can control people's minds and alter their realities and get paid $700 a gig. They might as well be selling carpeting.

Anyway, it's a good entry, worth reading. In fact, most of his blog entries have some good insight on society and the human condition, hidden among entertaining (and drug-induced) posts on various, usually sex-related topics.

Detecting Intentions?
May 10, 2007
Permalink ||
An article on brain scans reading intentions cites yet another interesting imaging study showing that certain brain patterns tend to correspond with certain behaviors. Uhm...yeah.

Okay, so the way they frame it, it is technological mind-reading. A computer can look at your brain and tell - with 70% accuracy - whether you are going to do one of two very simple actions. In this case, the subjects were asked to add or subtract two numbers, and the computer could pretty well predict which they'd do based on their brain patterns. "Aha!" you might say, "it can read minds!"

Of course, it's easy to skim over the fact that the subjects had spent a long time in the machine getting scanned while doing the same simple task. This was not hooked up to some brand new subject who had just come into the lab and been told to add or subtract a couple numbers. What the computer did was watch the subjects' brains while they did one or the other task, look for differences in the pattern of firing (not surprising that there would be *some* detectable differences in doing different tasks) and then looked for similar firing in the future.

In a sense, sure, it is "reading intentions". But that's a far cry from the allusion in the closing paragraph to scanning someone's brain to see if they intend to commit a crime. What we have here is:

(1) The scans are limited to very simple, distinct tasks. More complex behaviors and 'mental states' may be distributed much less obviously and more chaotically in the brain, especially for subtle differences in similar tasks (e.g. language).

(2) The scans are limited to subjects that the computer has been calibrated to. Individual differences in brain layout and function make it much harder to scan someone new and get useful information.

Technology will improve, but even in their basic design (correlating past brain states with past behavioral output) these techniques are a far cry from mind-reading.

I should note, though, that this sort of trained-scan paradigm has also been used to teach a monkey (over many trials) to control a computer cursor or robot arm by 'intention' alone, which offers lots of promise for paralyzed humans. See movie below.

Monkey controls arm:

Lawmaking 101
May 10, 2007
Permalink ||
I think in popular conception federal laws work very simply. Someone proposes to outlaw something or other, or make it mandatory perhaps, and then - after some lawyering and amending - the Congresscritters vote yes or no on the change.

Unfortunately, many (most?) federal law changes get lumped together in a single bill. Internet gambling and port security; internet sex sites and State Department appropriations; emergency military spending and national ID cards. The idea is to avoid voting on particular issues, especially unpopular ones, by attaching proposed laws to a bill that is unlikely to get rejected (i.e. necessary funding for federal departments).

Declan McCullagh outlines more in detail. And he barely scratches the surface. The way laws are passed in reality is far from how the process is popularly imagined when people debate an issue over the dinner table or around the water cooler.

It's kind of depressing. Not just that things happen this way - who am I to say I could design a better government from the ground up that could support such a large, economically prosperous nation? But it's depressing that Americans continue to delude themselves about the efficacy of voting for this or that Congresscritter who supports this or that issue, while ignoring how basic federal decisions are really made.

But people would rather argue over the pressing "issues" of the day (abortion, stem cells, whatever) than argue about the fundamental design of their governing system. It's simpler, and it keeps the populace busy thinking its opinion matters, while committees sit around and warp law based on whatever whim they've been bribed by interest groups to follow.

21st Century Crack
May 10, 2007
Permalink ||
So I haven't been posting for a while. Mainly because I've been hooked on crack. That stuff messes you up.

Okay, so I'm not talking about a literal crystalline tropane alkaloid. I'll leave that stuff to the Freuds and Sir Arthur Conan Doyles of the world. But I've got my own crack. We all do.

Crack is those things we all do, whether out of weakness or habit or loneliness or anger or whatever, those things we do that make us look back later (sometimes *much* later) and go "why?" Those things we do because we can't stop doing them. An addiction, but addiction is too loaded and narrow a word -- because this is something embedded deeper in our personality subroutine (and how much of our personality is the sum of our daily routines?)

Crack is what we do when we move by force of habit alone, or by the external pressures we've subjected ourselves to. We go to work and please the boss, because we're comfortable in the situation we're in (even when we're not comfortable there) and the idea of change -- of a *big* change (getting fired, moving, whatever) -- is scary. We go home and watch TV because it's always there. It's easy. We eat junk food because it's cheap and fast. It's easy. We spend our time on this and that, and the hours pass by, and the days pass by, and the months and years pass by.

And eventually we look back and we wonder where all the time went. And we write it off -- "oh, the years just go by faster when you're older," we say. "We have to spend all those hours at work...right? We need to get by." And of course when we come home tired from work, we only have so much energy. Who wants to make big changes -- life-altering changes -- when it's so much *easier* to stay with the familiar. To watch TV, or read a book, or play a video game, or go to bed early, or listen to music, or surf the net, or...or whatever it is we do that takes up all of our time, that makes those many long hours pass and seem like they were short and went by too fast.

Try sitting still. For just half an hour, try sitting absolutely still. No TV, no music, no books or magazines, no cell phones or internet. No external stimulation at all. Don't count the patterns on the wallpaper, don't read the book titles on the shelf in front of you. Don't sit on a couch or bed where you'll fall asleep. Just find a place to sit -- the more unusual the better -- and don't move for half an hour. It's not a long time really. One sitcom. Less time than most people spend commuting each day.

You might be surprised how hard it is. We're not used to sitting still, being silent and unstimulated. We have portable DVD players and car DVD players, so we can watch a movie anywhere. We have car stereos that are almost never off -- we talk over the radio, not instead of it -- and mp3 players that we can immerse ourselves in at any time. Cell phones come with us everywhere so we can have a pre-scripted, safe conversation any time we get bored and want to chat. Restaurants, doctor offices and businesses have TVs on for customers, and I haven't found a store in the last couple months I've been paying attention where music isn't blaring over the speakers. It can be anything -- rock, country, hiphop, "easy listening" (an interesting label) -- as long as it's something to keep us from getting antsy.

Because in silence people get antsy. When they don't have something to do, people get antsy. Why? You ever wonder why?

I think it's because deep down all of us know that living this modern life we live, we've subjected ourselves to so many rules and habits and norms that we're in some sense trapped by them. Trapped into a life lived shallowly, passed by *subsisting* a day at a time instead of *existing*. (I'll refrain from bringing politics into this by expounding on bread and circuses). We have to exist in our familiar pattern because to live outside of it, to be free of it, is hard and frightening, because it's unfamiliar, it's not what we know -- and humans have always feared the unknown (an often handy evolutionary holdover).

When people sit still, when they encounter silence and no outside stimulation, even when just waiting at a doctor's office with no TV, music or magazines, they get antsy. And I think it's because they don't know what to do -- for that one brief quarter-hour, they are at a total loss when encountering the freedom that is being left with only one's own thoughts. It's a bit like crack withdrawal.

Where do your thoughts go when left to their own? If you find that for half an hour you merely sit and think about work or relationships or maybe even a TV show, then try sitting for an hour, maybe two. Maybe more. Sit however long you need to before you have an 'aha' moment. One of those Big Pauses. When you start to look at life a little different.

It probably won't last, that insight. No radical paradigm shift is likely, I'm afraid. We're too well conditioned to today's society, too deeply embedded. A little exposure to the stimuli we've been so long trained to, and like rats in a maze we start to execute the familiar routines.

But maybe, just maybe, that brief time where your neurons fired a little out of the normal synch, maybe that miniscule difference will propagate, a chaotic influence like a butterfly changing weather patterns, and maybe you'll find yourself a little freer. Scary as that might be. Embrace the fear, seize it, consume it to strengthen your own inner power.

You're alive. You won't always be. Do something amazing before you're 90 and laying on your death bed wondering what it was all about and wondering why you worried so much about work and mortgages and clothes and money and what happened on a TV show. Seize the fucking day, not because there won't always be more of them, but because damnit, life is just so much more *fun* when you're really living it.