Nov 12

Odds and ends

A quotation from John Ruskin from an article on the 40th anniversary of Civilisation:

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.”

Aug 08

The portrait of a doomed man.

Another argument for casting your net widely is that you learn about new and fascinating things that rarely pop up in daily conversation, especially in our cloistered workaday lives. Today by way of a diary entry by Samuel Pepys, the ‘Eikon Basilike’ (full text), the “Royal Portrait”, a purported autobiography by King Charles I published after his regicide following the English Civil War.

I am not so old, as to be weary of life; nor (I hope) so bad, as to be either afraid to die, or ashamed to live: true, I am so afflicted, as might make Me sometime even desire to die; if I did not consider, That it is the greatest glory of a Christians life to die daily, in conquering by a lively faith, and patient hopes of a better life, those partiall and quotidian deaths, which kill us (as it were) by piece-meales, and make us overlive our owne fates; while We are deprived of health, honour, liberty, power, credit, safety, or estate; and those other comforts of dearest relations, which are as the life of our lives.

Though, as a KING, I think My self to live in nothing temporall so much, as in the love and goodwill of My People; for which, as I have suffered many deaths, so I hope I am not in that point as yet wholly dead: notwithstanding, My Enemies have used all the poyson of falsity and violence of hostility to destroy, first the love and Loyalty, which is in My Subjects; and then all that content of life in Me, which from these I chiefly enjoyed.

Indeed, they have left Me but little of life, and only the husk and shell (as it were) which their further malice and cruelty can take from Me; having bereaved Me of all those worldly comforts, for which life it self seems desirable to men.

Aug 08

A Digital Soul

Transhumanism has become a well-flogged topic of conversation with all the discussion of the Singularity. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to transcend biology and mortality, but I do know that we would benefit from the wisdom of our greatest minds if we could preserve them. Of course, we already do this, in the sense that our thinkers and innovators left behind their words and discoveries to guide us. From Plato to Leonardo da Vinci to Isaac Newton, we are the beneficiaries of a deep wealth of human knowledge and experience. Our entire civilization, even if we take it for granted, is the cumulative result of every human contribution. Our culture is like an immortal organism, while our individual lives are its constituent cells.

In A Martian Time-Slip, robotic teachers based on important cultural figures lead classes. Although this was presented in a typically unsettling Philip K. Dick fashion, it is an interesting idea. If you could emulate the personality and knowledge of our best minds, wouldn’t it have some benefit? In the Star Trek universe, characters routinely consult with historical figures through the holodeck. Provided we had the technical ability to present a human simulation, how would you create a model of a distinct personality? What would I have to know about you to create a simulation that would reasonably behave as you would in any given situation or circumstance?

Jun 08

Radical minimalism is modern asceticism

Apropos of my last post, I came across two very relevant pieces. One on the success of paper as an interface (we forget that paper is a successful technical achievement) and one in Time on radical minimalism.

This flight from materialism seems to be part of the national zeitgeist. Many of us are overwhelmed by modern life in all its complexity and ambiguity. At a certain level, has modern life become opposed to our basic nature? Partly due to temperament, I look back and wonder if we lived better lives a few generations ago when the tendency was to stay near family and to live simply with more humble expectations for what life had to offer. Aside from advances in prosperity and medicine, have we improved the quality of our lives?

Continue reading →

May 08

Generational Conflict

Funny article on the brewing conflict between the so-called “Generation X”, of which I am a member, and the Millennials, ie. anyone born after 1981 or so.

That’s why the time has come for Generation X to unite. We need to call bullshit on these naive, self-important crybabies trying to rob us of what is rightly our own. Remember how the Baby Boomers all turned into self-serving, narcissistic assholes who deified Michael Douglas in the ’80s? The time has come for us to turn into assholes, too, minus the Michael Douglas part.

I suppose it’s natural for people who regard themselves as “young” to experience anxiety when they realize that they are actually progressing through the next arc on the wheel of life; that someone else moving up to take their place. When you’re a child you’re excited about the freedom of adulthood and you’re relatively naive. When you become a young adult, you exult in the richness of new experiences and novelty. Later adulthood seems to be a period of improvement and optimization. You’re learning more about yourself and coming to terms with Life in general.

Generational anxiety is understandable. As you get older, there’s definitely a feeling that you no longer belong in the world of your younger colleagues. I suppose this feeling happens to some degree to every person as they move through the stages of their life; 70-somethings wistful at the sight of a hard-charging 50-year-old. The main consolation seems to be that Life reveals new treasure with every passing year. Like the rings of a tree, we grow in experience and wisdom layer upon layer, stronger and stronger with every season of life.

May 08

Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life

A while back, I heard a good podcast from BBC’s In Our Time, on Søren Kierkegaard’s view on the aesthetic life leading ultimately to despair. I spent a little time googling up some information as I know very little about Kierkegaard. This seemed interesting:

In the aesthetic life, one is ruled by passion. In the ethical life, one is ruled by societal regulations. In the religious life, one is ruled by total faith in God. One can never be truly free, and this causes boredom, anxiety, and despair. True faith doesn’t lead to freedom, but it relieves the psychological effects of human existence. Kierkegaard claims that the only way to make life worthwhile is to embrace faith in God, and that faith necessarily involves embracing the absurd. One has faith in God, but one cannot believe in God. We believe in things that we can prove, but we can only have faith in things that are beyond our understanding. For example, we believe in gravity: we feel its effects constantly, which we recognize as proof of gravity’s existence. It makes no sense, though, to say we have faith in gravity, since that would require the possibility that, someday, gravity would fail to materialize. Faith requires uncertainty, and thus we can have faith in God because God is beyond logic, beyond proof, and beyond reason. There’s no rational evidence for God, but this is exactly what allows people to have faith in him.

As an agnostic, this is the problem I have with staunch atheists. To deny even the possibility of a God is to make a leap of faith. Just like to believe in God requires a leap of faith. In this sense, both atheists and theists lack a healthy sense of doubt, even though we’re dealing with ideas that are beyond proof. The existence of God is essentially unknowable as he presumably stands outside natural law and physical reality. In my experience, both extreme theists and atheists have more in common with each other than they do agnostics. They seem to be reacting to some bad experience by moving toward one pole or the other, in search of certainty.

May 08

Knowing what to do

This thing with my Dad being in the hospital. I haven’t talked about it much, mostly because I didn’t want to jinx anything. The further we get toward survival, the better I feel.

Knowing what to do has been the hardest part. Since my brother and I are my father’s next of kin, we have had to navigate a sea of problems, ranging from the medical and legal to the personal and financial. I think we’ve done okay, all things considered.

It’s weird how difficult experiences can be valuable. On the one hand, you wouldn’t voluntarily experience something painful, but while going through it you get a sense of the gravity and meaning that seems to exist under the surface of daily life. When you see a daily parade of shattered families walk through the ICU with fear in their eyes or crying in huddled groups, it makes an impression. The message is: every day that you go about your normal routine, someone somewhere is having their heart ripped out. Suffering is universal, so stop being such a jerk.

The other thing you learn is that everyone needs access to medical care. I don’t advocate any particular plan, but most people don’t plan on being hospitalized. So, if employers are not forced to offer health insurance and people are not required to have health insurance, it stands to reason that many people are taking the risk of serious injury and the subsequent crushing medical debt. Even people with health insurance are often insufficiently covered. How can healthcare be optional in this country? We’re ignoring the problem.

Apr 08

Fast Food Afficianado

Since I’ve been back in San Antonio for about three weeks, I’ve gotten to know the surrounding restaurants very well. Too well. In between visiting hours, I normally walk across the street to Chik-fil-A, so I don’t have to pay twice for parking. As far as fast food goes, Chik-fil-A is top of the heap. You can actually tell what kind of animal the sandwich came from. They also do things a little differently:

  1. The employees at Chik-fil-A always say “My pleasure” when I say, “Thank you”. Even if it is part of some cynical marketing ploy, I like it.
  2. There are fresh flowers on each table. The other day they were yellow daisy-like flowers. Today they were purple daisy-like flowers.
  3. Little Texas Pete hot sauce packets! I am all for condiment selection. Hot sauce is essential. (Don’t miss the Texas Pete Wikipedia article wherein someone gets a little free with the truth: “In late 2003, Chick-Fil-A opted to carry Texas Pete sauce (packet-form) in its restaurants nationwide. Same-store sales catapulted over 45% in 2004. Many analysts close to the firm heralded the decision to carry the sauce, largely attributing the company’s success to the sauce itself. In several third party surveys, Chick-Fil-A customers have exclaimed, “Texas Pete doesn’t go on the chicken sandwich, the chicken sandwich goes on the Texas Pete,” and “Best thing since the chicken sandwich.”)
  4. They play Christian music as background music. I don’t really have a problem with this except it’s generally bland and I don’t know any of the songs. That’s okay. Background music is not supposed to be good.
  5. Real lemonade. Tart and sweet. ‘Nuff said.
  6. At the entrance to the playscape, they provide the kids with little alcohol towelettes so they can clean their grubby hands.

Mar 08

Fashion is an expression of cultural life

I saw this high school kid yesterday with the whole 80’s metal look: black Iron Maiden t-shirt, tight grey jeans, and long hair with Dave Mustaine bangs. I’m amused by how often teen fashion recapitulates past trends and then I remember how we were no different in my time, aping the teens of past generations who seemed cool. In a way, fashion is regressive and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. It looks for inspiration from the past while adding the stamp of the present; creating culture while maintaining direct links to previous layers of culture. I would like to see people drawing fashion inspiration from far-flung periods in time or from extrapolations of the future, but we will continue to see kids drawing inspiration from more recent trends simply because, as a culture, we lack both a deep sense of history and an imagination for the future.

Feb 08

Evolution is parallel computing

Let’s say you created a program with a simple yet specific goal: to persist. This program would iterate by replicating itself and branching off into new directions with very simple changes to the underlying code. Each version of the program is without volition, yet, if successful in persisting long enough to replicate, it will pass along key components to the next version. This would grant further success and the program would survive.

DNA is this program and we who inhabit the earth are its compiled result. If all life is the result of this process of iteration (biological evolution), it makes sense that to iterate more rapidly and efficiently it would help to have multiple branches, populations, and individuals iterating in parallel rather than attempting to iterate serially from a single line of individual organisms. In other words, maybe our rich biodiversity is the result of Life increasing its processing power by developing in parallel.

DNA HelixLife started out with a limited ability to create new versions with significant variation. In the beginning, presumably only a handful of different organisms existed (maybe even an ur-lifeform, or grandfather organism) and these tended to be unicellular with minute amounts of genetic information. As life forms evolved and grew more complex, they incorporated other single-cell organisms into them and adapted sexual reproduction, which granted enhanced variability in genetic information through the combination of two sets of different yet fundamentally compatible DNA sequences.

Other thoughts:

  1. Life has developed from simple forms with limited genetic information and a limited impact on its environment, to complex forms with complex genetic information and a more pronounced impact on its environment. How will this trend continue? Will it?
  2. Life has developed multiple methods of reproduction trending from simple to more complex, which has led to greater genetic diversity. Is there a logical improvement on sexual reproduction? Intelligent, self-directed mutation? A networked organism comprised of intelligent individually evolving components?
  3. The human genome consists of 3 billion base pairs, which is equivalent to about 750 MB. Our genome contains genetic information from more primitive organisms (bloatware?) just as our physical structure has primitive antecedents.
  4. Our biological systems have tended from simple to complex. Consider the development of the eye, or the heart (fish have a two-chambered heart, birds a three-chambered heart, and mammals a four-chambered heart), for example. Is technology the proper extension of this complexity? (This is a point made in The Singularity is Near)
  5. Semi-related: The symbolic use of information in religious sources like the Bible is reminds me of the idea of DNA as living information: From John 1:1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” and Revelation 1:8 “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”
  6. Zawinski’s law: “Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.”