Monday, February 28, 2011

Random, Pointless Ideas About Complexity That I Had This Morning

Articles like this one boldly state that the human brain is "the most complex structure in the known universe". I think that is a very interesting -- if utterly pointless -- observation, one I've heard made over and over. It speaks of a perceptual horizon that mocks our attempts to understand the universe, once you start thinking about it. It has the self-referentialism characteristic of arguments that rely on the anthropic principle in some regard. Of course we can't know anything more complex than the thing with which we're knowing things.

The so-called "debates" or dialogues that concern themselves with intelligent design have a similar flavor. More or less intelligent people are having more or less intelligent discussions about whether evolutionary processes are more or less intelligent. But of course, intelligence is a subset of evolutionary processes in the first place. Can intelligence resulting from evolution make a real distinction concerning whether evolution is intelligent or not? Can craziness resulting from evolution make a real distinction concerning whether evolution is crazy or not?

We live in a snow globe, and our quest for a unified theory of everything is fruitless.

Douglas Adams famously said that if we ever did figure out the universe, it would vanish and be immediately replaced by something more complex. In fact, this had probably already happened.

I miss him.

I have long been a proponent of critical rationalism as a discipline offering some method of finding dialogue between different modes (fideist, reductionist) of knowledge. For example, most rational, scientifically-minded people would be very quick to ridicule the efforts of theologians who in bygone years discussed quite seriously the problem of how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. Look twice - those theologians were talking about Zeno's paradox, and they had some interesting insights. They were using a different language to express their ideas.

Here's what I think. A fly crawling across a compact disc on which Beethoven's masterworks are recorded, has no experience, no possible way of appreciating in any sense the scale of the significance of what it is interacting with. It cannot understand humans, or their history, the industrial revolution and the invention of electricity, lasers, SONY corporation, music, Beethoven, coffee tables, or any of those other things. Can these things... the hairs on the fly's leg, the brilliance of Beethoven's 9th symphony... be said to be real in the same way? What do we mean by reality, then?

Consider your receipt of this message. It formed as an idea in my mind, I clumsily encoded it in English in my own brain, then sent biological signaling to my fingers to cause them to transmit kinetic force to plastic keys, which triggered a cascade of electronic signals through a relay of machines, which then reconstructed the data as images and displayed them as flashing lights, emitting photons which then were received by your eyes, which then talked to your brain, which then reconstructed the information into words in English, and then deconstructed the emergent meaning encoded in that English for the underlying idea.

Is this message real, then, in the same way that a rock is real? Part of the same universe? Is there any intersection of the state space? Do objects actually exist discretely?

Beats me.

Complexity is a funny word. Reality is a funny word.

Maybe we need to rank complexity. Maybe we need to rank realities. Maybe we need to index and measure our experiences accordingly.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

The David Boyle / Donald Rumsfeld Letters

The preamble here is this interview Donald Rumsfeld did with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. It's far less awkward than this other interview Rumsfeld did on the radio with comedian Louis C.K.

I don't think Donald Rumsfeld is a lizard. However, I do know based on my own experiences in government communications in 2001 that he is a baldfaced liar whose utter contempt for the public smokes off him like a cinder jacket.

In his Twitter feed, alluding to the interview with Stewart, he wrote:

My goodness! Watch the full unedited @thedailyshow interview online:

So today, I thought I'd see if he wanted to have a conversation. I sent him the following tweets:

@RumsfeldOffice My goodness! That's quite an interview! At least he stopped short of asking you if you were a lizard.

@RumsfeldOffice You're going to face the void soon with a lifetime of evil and contempt behind you. My goodness!

I'm currently waiting on a reply. Meanwhile, I'd encourage you all to take the time to personally thank this soulless fucking lizard for playing his part in squandering your children's future. Thanks to Rob Sheridan for pointing me at this.

Update: Rumsfeld posted the following comment to his Twitter feed within about 30 minutes of my attempts at communicating with him.

What a past few weeks! Thank you twitter followers – I appreciate reading all your kind comments.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

If Stephen Harper had a love child with a unicorn it would look like this

From a letter to The Ottawa Citizen:

In Dan Gardner’s February 4th piece, “Harper’s supposed evil plan isn’t panning out”, we “non-fans” of the prime minister, characterized by the intensity of our loathing for the man, are assured that he is, in fact, a “nasty but inconsequential” being whose true threat to Canadian society is overstated. We are encouraged to resist the temptation to think of Harper as Sauron spreading the darkness of Mordor across the land, because that sort of rhetorical finger-pointing is precisely the sort of tool that Harper makes such devastating use of. We’re the rational ones. We should not presume to use the One Ring to good effect.

It’s an age-old problem that nobody has ever really figured out how to address. In the eternal struggle of light versus the darkness, goodness has to act honourably, while evil is allowed to cheat. Well, at least goodness is allowed to be smug once in a while.

Bless Gardner for his caution and his Gandalfian words of wisdom, but allow me to play devil’s advocate for just a moment, and express a few thoughts that I think are salient in this discussion of what sort of damage Stephen Harper’s reign is really doing to our society.

Famously and quite recently, Obama addressed Americans in a frank and earnest manner (he does earnest really well, that man) and told them to get off their collective asses and rise to the challenges of the day, which are considerable. Embedded in that cryptic entreaty (us? Do something?) was a subtext hinting that a lowering of expectations might not be the worst thing in the world in light of what’s coming.

China is on the rise. Climate change is real and it’s happening now. The economy has tanked and may not recover. The middle class is gone and it isn’t coming back. The internet is destroying or transforming everything in its path – bookstores, bookshelves, libraries, video rentals, dirty magazines, readable magazines, newspapers, the music industry, nations, dictators, the stock market, banking. The entire public service is about to retire, and the best and brightest of our generation are working hard at making video games. That sounds like a bad thing, but really, these days, setting up shop in a crummy little apartment and playing World of Warcraft until China takes over isn’t an illogical alternative to raising a family in good faith that they’ll have a chance to compete and enjoy a decent life.

It is, indeed, the future. It is a brave new world. It is a twittering, facebooking, globally warm, peak-oil apprehending, overpopulated, underfed, increasingly less biodiverse world we live in, right now. This being the case, I don’t see how Stephen Harper’s rudderless, bent, pseudo-messianic drive to clamp down on criminals and layabouts, to import Fox News north of the border, or to do whatever other batshit insane thing he seems to think worthwhile, can be seen as anything but singularly destructive to our national dream, to our hopes for the future, to the continuance of our species.

Many of us still think of the political landscape as being one of right versus left, where good-natured people of differing ideologies can politely agree to disagree about which direction is the best one. This thinking is, sadly, becoming dated. The talk in Universities these days is that democracy is a demonstrable failure, because a four-year planning horizon cannot adapt to the challenges facing humanity. The Chinese understand this, and they have a government run by engineers, while ours is run by idealogues, propagandists, lawyers, and self-interested lobbyists. The United States stands paralyzed in the high-beam staring contest between those who love reason and those who feel threatened by it. The coming years will not be kind to them. Just watch what happens.

The truth is, reason plays very little part in helping people to make up their minds. We all like to think of ourselves as reasonable people, but we’re not… or, if we are, it’s a trick we’ve learned to play when we have an audience, like a dog standing on its hind legs.

What changes people’s minds is advertising. Harper understands this. It’s why he’s sticking around. Those of us on the left, those of us huddled up in Gondor, we like to think of truthful things to say, say them once, and let our sense of moral superiority be the rocky ground on which those few scattered seeds fail to find purchase. Harper understands that bullshit grows better gardens. In a time when truth and action are what we are being called to, that makes him anything but inconsequential. It makes him dangerous, and evil.