log (2000/03/17 to 2000/03/23)

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Thursday, March 23, 2000

When reporters get it wrong: The Daily Howler.

Last night I gave a talk to the local IEEE section, in Thayer Hall at the West Point Military Academy. As usual when encountering the military, even peripherally, I felt somewhat conflicted. In the abstract, I associate the armed forces with the military-industrial complex, war atrocities, the use of force for political ends, bad behavior, and in general the dangers of power and privilege. On the other hand, every member of the military I've ever met in person has been intelligent, kind, polite, competent, and disciplined.

In theory, I'm all for cutting military budgets and emphasizing the arts of peace. In practice, standing among the perfectly-groomed lawns and the solid martial architecture of West Point, watching the earnest cadets with their heads bent against the wind, talking to an officer who has the dedicated look of someone whose family has been in the service for generations, I find myself feeling awfully glad that it all exists.

Is there a hard problem with consciousness at all? Some of the people who think there isn't say very odd things. Teed Rockwell, on the page I cited the other day, says for instance:

Those of us who have appropriated this Sellarsian world view do not experience ourselves as having this direct inner awareness. Rather we experience ourselves in terms of a theoretical system that acknowledges itself to be the introspective subset of our conceptual world view. ... I don't have an awareness of something called experience which is distinct from structure and function...

which is awfully scary! He's seriously claiming not to have direct inner awareness (unless that "this" is serving as a weasel). This seems to me to be a strong reason not to study Sellars too hard.   *8)   What would it be like to experience oneself "in terms of a theoretical system"? I tend to suspect that he's just allowed his theories of how the world works to get in the way of noticing his own consciousness; or maybe he really is a zombie!

Dennett says some similar stuff, although not quite as radically. He thinks that the claim "you can explain the structure and function of the brain as much as you like, but you won't necessarily have explained subjectivity" is as mistaken as "you can explain the structure and function of living systems as much as you like, but you won't necessarily have explained life." But anyone who doesn't see a radical difference between explaining life (or pretty much anything else!) and explaining subjectivity must have an inner life that feels very different from mine. Dennett, in Facing Backwards on the Problem of Consciousness:

What impresses me about my own consciousness, as I know it so intimately, is my delight in some features and dismay over others, my distraction and concentration, my unnamable sinking feelings of foreboding and my blithe disregard of some perceptual details, my obsessions and oversights, my ability to conjure up fantasies, my inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness at a time, my ability to be moved to tears by a vivid recollection of the death of a loved one, my inability to catch myself in the act of framing the words I sometimes say to myself, and so forth. These are all `merely' the `performance of functions' or the manifestation of various complex dispositions to perform functions. In the course of making an introspective catalogue of evidence, I wouldn't know what I was thinking about if I couldn't identify them for myself by these functional differentia. Subtract them away, and nothing is left beyond a weird conviction (in some people) that there is some ineffable residue of `qualitative content' bereft of all powers to move us, delight us, annoy us, remind us of anything.

Now I can read this in two ways. Dennett might be saying that it's silly to talk about what it's like to be himself in general, in the abstract, without talking about what it's like to feel specific things, to be in a specific mood, to be himself at a specific time. That's a reasonable thing to say, but it doesn't imply that there's no hard problem about why his brain and body being in this physical state should cause this subjective feeling.

On the other hand, he might be saying that what impresses him about his consciousness is that it does all these things; that his brain and body carry out all these various activities which can be objectively described as "distraction", "sinking feelings", and so on, and that that's all there is to his consciousness. This will make the "hard problem" go away, since we can assume that science will eventually give us however much explanation we want of the objective behavior of his brain and body. But now the claim is just about as strong and odd as Rockwell's claim above; he's essentially claiming that there is no inner subjectivity to be explained. If that's the case, then he is lucky (as Rockwell is lucky) in that the world is nice and simple for him. For the rest of us, though, who do have inner experience, his arguments are little help.

I hope to find the time sometime soonish to update the Problems of Consciousness pages with some of this stuff. I've avoided doing a Web search on the general theme so far, because I know it'll turn up tons of stuff, and I won't have the time to wade through it all...

Wednesday, March 22, 2000

The Journal of Mundane Behavior (from Michael Travers): well worth reading, especially the lovely piece on behavior in elevators in Japan.

Did you know that a river runs through Los Angeles? Take the armchair tour of all fifty miles, from the headwaters to the sea (from LarkFarm, which I'm almost afraid to visit these days, because I know I'll find more interesting links than I have time to follow up).

What happens to the ideas that aren't quite worth patenting? IBM used to publish them in the IBM Technical Disclosure Bulletin (see for instance this Fowl Breast Scorer). Nowadays, IBM (and others) use Research Disclosure; for a small fee, they'll publish anything, to prevent anyone else from patenting it later.

Another blocking software litigation mess: the owners of CyberPatrol are sending out lawyer-letters, trying to control the distribution of various programs and information about finding out what their blocker blocks, and getting around it. Declan Muccullagh was one of the lucky recipients, and he's put up an interesting page about it. The page also leads to his photo collection.

Which reminds me that I haven't mentioned Phil Greenspun's photo collection lately. (Now I have!)

Which reminds me that I should mention the AltaVista image-search engine, which I've been using to find little pictures for the Log and stuff. Here, for instance, are some pictures of Mitzi Gaynor (another person I had a youthful crush on).

Another Distributed Denial of Service tool turns up: "Shaft" (analysis).

On the RealPlayer: KCRW Music Online.

Nomic: A fine crop of moves this round (although I notice I'm always seeing the same hands!). I'm ignoring one suggestion which seemed to violate the ban on dead chickens (I mean, I can't tell for sure, but heck it's about time we got some use out of that rule), and one other as noted below. I'm applying:

proposal = All entities participating in the current Nomic, regardless of the level of participation, shall be encouraged to brush and floss every morning and night. The minimum amount of encouragement to be given to the above mentioned entities is this rule itself.
name = Bovine
integer = 333

This seems entirely praiseworthy (especially in not mentioning just what we're supposed to be brushing and flossing), so I'm accepting it despite its (technically speaking) having no effect whatever on Game Play. I'm ignoring one other suggestion that would similarly have no discernable effect. I'm applying:

proposal = Rule 22: All scores shall be rounded to the nearest integer. If any person's rounded integer is equal to the Integer accompanying his/her valid move, that person's score doubles.
name = judith
integer = 15

I was going to refuse this one on technical grounds, but I seem to be in an informal mood today; I'll read "his/her valid move" to mean "a valid move which is applied by the Scribe, and in which the Name refers to him/her". I will entertain suggestions to extend the bonus defined here to apply to non-person entities as well, in case any of those happen by. (Also, although the move seems to suggest numbering the new rule 22, I believe that Rule 14 requires me to make it rule 15.)

Another Rule 6 event, another 10 points for "Bovine", who really ought to consider gambling as a profession. And of course all scores get rounded to the nearest integer; but since for scores like 7.5 there is no nearest integer, I'll assume I'm not suppose to do anything to those.   *8)  

I'm also accepting the rather radical:

proposal = Contradictory rules are deemed null and void. Both rules, whether being applied, or previously applied shall be removed. eg, rule 759834 (1) precludes the use of 759834 (2) and both should be removed.
name = gerph
integer = 12345

again because I'm in an informal mood (there's no logical contradiction between the two 759834s, but there's certainly a certain tension). So this is a new rule, both 759834s go away, and applying the same rather informal notion of contradiction so do (oh, let's see) 13 and 99 (since 99's prohibition on primes makes 13's conditions never fire) and 17 (since it is all by itself a most contradictory rule).

And finally:

proposal = In Rule 12, change "100" to "37"
name = Hillary Clinton
integer = 201

which should add some interesting twists to the whole game-ending question. Status in the usual place, and don't forget to brush and floss something morning and night!

(By the way, if any readers who aren't interested in the Nomic find that the weekly rounds clutter things up here, use the input box or the "reply" link up top to let me know. If enough people complain, I'll move the Nomic to its own page, and just put a brief link here when it's updated.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Long-winded philosophizing, lots of reader input, and another promise to get to the Nomic tomorrow.

Alamut pointed me at Sylloge, which pointed me at this very good page about the debate between Chalmers and Dennett on the nature of consciousness and on whether or not there's any unique problem in explaining it. Read Sylloge's page (it's the 2000/03/20 entry, a ways down), and the three links above, and then go over to the Problems of Consciousness pages here and see if you can help us out!   *8) My impression is that Dennett's arguments are very powerful as long as you don't concede that there's anything uniquely odd about consciousness; unfortunately, I'm quite sure that there is!

George, a reader, writes on the issue of consciousness:

Whilst your thoughts or observations are interesting, I think you are complicating, by far too much, a simple solution. Since you as a Homo Sapien feel strongly aware of your consciousness, how it affects you or how it makes you feel, it would appear to me an obvious and reasonable thing to be confident that others of this same species, acting and reacting in similar ways to yourself, would drive you to the conclusion that they too are acting out of conscious stimulii.

That's certainly a common argument. But the sample size is so small! From "the one entity that I know is conscious, is a human who behaves in certain ways", it is really quite a leap to conclude "therefore all humans who behave in similar ways are conscious". I'm not willing to accept that as a valid inductive argument by itself. But George strengthens the argument:

If it were not so then they would act and react in dramatically different ways than you do to their environmental, sociological and psychological stimulii, however, apart from personal characteristical differences most Homo Sapiens respond, or seem to respond, to some 'Inner consciousness' much like you do and hence it is certain that they do.

This is the argument that my inner consciousness, my subjectivity, is part of the causal explanation of my physical actions. It's also a common argument, and it may turn out to be correct. Note, though, that if it is correct it seems to predict some very surprising results in physics, as I point out on this POC page: if my subjectivity is part of the causal chain leading to my physical actions, then physicists will eventually come to a point where they cannot account for my physical actions strictly in terms of objective facts and physical laws! That would be amazingly strange; on the other hand, the strong feeling that at least some of us have, that our inner decisions must be what causes our outer behavior, seems to essentially require it. A puzzle!

Clearly if it is ultimately necessary to appeal to subjectivity in order to explain human behavior, then I will have strong evidence that other people who behave about like I do have subjectivity. But that necessity is still very much an open question; the explanations that we've so far constructed for the detailed movements of atoms in our bodies (and the rest of the world) nowhere include any subjective entities (and it's not at all clear how they could).

George gives one further argument:

In fact the solution is even simpler than the explanation which I offered above, because, since we are capable of communicating with one another, all I have to do is ask "Are you aware of an Inner Consciousness?" and BINGO we have the answer. It would be a rare and rather strange, or perhaps manipulated, Homo Sapien who could not say "Yes" to your question.

Well, sure. But I could easily construct a computer, or a tape-recorder, that would say "Yes" when asked "Are you aware of an Inner Consciousness?", and that would not be useful evidence of actual consciousness; equally, there are many humans who for whatever reason would or could not reply "Yes" to that question, but to whom we would readily grant inner consciousness. I don't think we get much mileage out of the mere tendency to emit certain sounds?

Or, more bluntly, why should I believe you when you say you have subjectivity, when I wouldn't believe my computer's speech-chip when it says the same thing?

Codex Seraphinianus: a reader writes of having picked up a copy once in Half Price Books for US$29.95 (I urrgh with envy), and passes along this nascent decoding effort which also has some promising-looking pointers that I haven't followed up yet.

The grammar of time-travel: Various readers wrote to point out that this famously appears in Douglas Adams' Restaurant at the End of the Universe. For instance (from Justin):

You can arrive (mayan arivan on-when) for any sitting you like without prior (late fore-when) reservation because you can book retrospectively, as it were when you return to your own time. (you can have on-book haventa forewhen presooning returningwenta retrohome.)

A reader writes:

<?xml version="1.0"?>

which I have to admit would never have occurred to me. In a more familiar dialect, a reader of Proper Lyrics writes:

Proper Lyrics is very shattering. I have my own sphere of lyrics; quite similar to your last sequence, full of youth and angst and anger and joy and ... but once others know the words, they seem silly and pointless.

I doubt they'd seem any more silly and pointless than mine! Share them, and let the world validate you. And thanks for that "shattering"...

More kissed things: "the hands of fair maidens" and "off, up, ...and tell, my paycheck goodbye". Authorization codes: "Open, Sesame!" and "Hi, Dad.". What do you know? "the sky is blue!" and perhaps "I leap into the conceptual air, my imagination twirling in long multi-colored serpentines at the possibilities." Whew!

More questions and answers: http://www.waitbob.pair.com/questions.htm and http://members.bbnow.net/tsalyers/answers.html.

Favorite Fears:

Favorite fear? An oxymoron. Like "favorite anguish" or "happiest tragedy." Or, Zen-like, "loudest silence," "longest instant." But I evade. Biggest fear? Losing her.

My teeth. Having things happen to my teeth. Favorite, though? It's hardly a favorite. I wish it would just go away!

As a child, I was always convinced that I would die by drowning. I could imagine the feeling of being underwater, trying to hold my breath, trying and, finally unable to do so, letting it out in a burst and gasping, the feel of the liquid in my throat, choking, gasping again, the fear of knowing that there was only water, only death. Thinking about it now, I suspect it came from an experience when I was about five. I had my tonsils out, and the anaesthetic they used at the time was ether, dribbled or sprayed on a gauze mask held over your nose and mouth. They strapped me down on the table, arms and legs, put this thing over my face, then I couldn't breath. There was only the awful, choking taste of ether. I tried to tear the mask from my face, tried to leap off the table, but I could not. I thought at the time that the nurses were holding me down with their hands as I struggled to breath, struggled to fight them off until, choking, I lost consciousness.

And finally:

Is it wrong to take so much pleasure from thinking up rules for the Nomic ?

Not at all! I really and truly will try to get to the Nomic tomorrow. Really!

Monday, March 20, 2000

Today's the little boy's sixth birthday. Happy Birthday, little boy!

"You'll never get me up in one of those things," says the caterpillar to the butterfly.
-- Timothy Leary

And the little daughter had her Performance Awards thing on Saturday, with the director of the American Academy of Ballet judging all the little dancers. (If you force it out of me, I will admit that she got a Silver Medal with Distinction; we're quietly proud). Now I can't find the American Academy of Ballet on the Web, but I'm sure it exists somewhere.   *8)   She got a nice medal out of it, in any case...

I was a kid that you would like:
  just a small boy on her bike.
-- Dar Williams

Discovered in the car this morning that "When I was a Boy" and "The Babysitter's Here" can still make my eyes all watery, just like the first time I heard them. Silly fathers...

Geegaw is on vacation, but she's left the site up, to be collaboratively filled up by friends. It'll be interesting to see how it works! (Metababy is still churning along, and it's even nominated for a "webbie", as a Personal Site, which is odd but also appropriate.)

Conspiracy Theories: A small bunch of them occurred to me over the weekend for some reason.

Someone on some list I follow pointed out a parallel: one of the more widely-held conspiracy theories has George Bush (the old one) arranging with certain Middle Eastern figures that the Iranian hostage crisis should not end until the first day of Ronald Reagan's term; wouldn't it be interesting if the current oil-price crisis (also connected with certain Middle Eastern figures) were to continue until the first day of George Bush (the young one)'s term?

The Grumpy Dudes (GDs) who run Communist China have always hated the GDs who run Taiwan ('cause they got away all those years ago). Now, just before the first election in Taiwan's history that had a real chance of getting the Taiwan GDs out of power, the Communist GDs make these big heavyhanded announcements warning the voters in Taiwan that if they vote for the opposition, Terrible Things Might Happen. "Whatever you do, Brer Taiwanese, don't vote for dat ol' briar patch!" I dunno, just smells fishy to me...

And finally not a conspiracy so much as a wrenching irony: the cover of the New York Times Magazine section this week shows a little girl in poverty, standing in a room barer than it ought to be, pulling on clothes raggeder than they ought to be, under the caption "In the Shadow of Wealth". You can't tell from the web page, but it's one of those fold-out covers with an ad on the other side. The ad, in this case, is for snooty expensive men's clothing, and on the fold-out page right next to the little girl is this model, dressed like a smug overtailored arsehole, looking off into space as if to stress the point that the little girl, because not prosperous, is utterly invisible.

I wonder if someone arranged that juxtaposition on purpose?

Tomorrow, probably, reader letters, Nomic, and whatever else pops up.

Saturday, March 18, 2000

Houseguests, and a friend of the little daughter's sleeping over. Vast crowds! Nice, though.

Lots more playing around with the Bryce demo as introduced on Thursday. So far it seems very addictive; even when I can't save the world, or create a picture or animation without the big "MetaCreations" watermarks all over it, it's easy to spend minutes / hours fiddling with the world, with the camera angles, with the sky parameters, or waiting for the renderer to finish.

And here I was wondering if we really had any use for this fast new 550MHz Aptiva!   *8)   Click the thumbnail over there for another 50K jpeg. It looked (even?) better before compression and watermarking, of course; just your everyday giant stone cylinder sitting spot-lit in the evening wilderness...

Assuming I don't get tired of the demo in the next few days, I'll probably spring for the program itself. Another free-time absorber; just what I need!

Two related coincidences: looking for a book to read while singing the little boy to sleep, I picked up Timothy Leary's "Chaos and Cyber Culture", part of which is of course all about the ultimate coolness of creating virtual words in computers.

On the skin-tissue plain, our left brains are limited to mechanical-material forms. But in ScreenLand our right brains are free to imagineer digital dreams, visions, fictions, concoctions, hallucinatory adventures. All these screen scenes are as real as a kick in the pants as far as our brains are concerned.

I never know quite what to make of Leary. His stuff usually seems to be making truth-claims, and those truth-claims are usually patently false. On the other hand, his stuff pleases, resonates, strikes chords. I should treat it, I guess, more like art than like assertions of fact, despite its apparent form.

The other coincidence is that while in Wal-Mart ("the store big enough to swallow your town!") looking for camera and watch batteries, I grabbed a "Relax to the Rhythm of the River (enhanced with music)" CD off the rack, on a whim and because it was cheap. I'm usually cynical about fluffy nature-and-chords ambient stuff, but this turned out to go just perfectly with the pictures I was rendering in Bryce while I played it. DIY Riven, complete with mood-music...

Friday, March 17, 2000

In talking about Metababy the other week, I promised to talk about Wikis. "Wiki" is related to the Hawai'ian "wiki wiki", which (probably) means "quick". The word is used in "WikiWikiWeb", which is a style of collaborative Web site that I first encountered at the Portland Pattern Repository (a bunch of people who sit around talking about software development and stuff, using a big collection of pages that anyone in the world can edit). There are lots of other Wiki-like sites also; I think the Portland one was the first.

Wikis, for whatever subtle reason (or sometimes because they actually have access controls!) don't generally have the same vandalism problems that Metababy has had. But, coincidentally enough, the Portland Wiki did have a big "mind wipe" just a couple of weeks ago. They seem to have recovered.

I used to visit the Portland Wiki quite often (see my page there), and I even did my own Wiki server for use here at work. I used the server to host one small informal task-force thing, and it was kind of fun (it's still running on the computer there behind me, in fact). But dilettante that I am I sort of drifted over to other things.

(In poking around the Web this morning, I find that there is now a wikiweb.com, but I've only glanced at the front page, and have no idea how it relates to other WikiThings.)

Two different readers (see, I do have at least two readers!) wrote praising lileks.com, home of the Gallery of Regrettable Food that I cited the other day. The rest of the site is definitely worth a look; there's a weblog (the Daily Bleat), the Bureau of Corporate Allegory, and lotsa other cool stuff.

On the sequential art theme, Katrin suggests The Words and Pictures Virtual Museum (all that remains of a real museum of comic art that used to exist). The site is smaller that it looks at first glance, but still a good addition to the list (and they plan to grow). There's another plausible-looking museum at comic-art.com (although it seems to concentrate on commercial "superhero" comics, rather than the more offbeat kind I'm most fond of).

Lifting the lid of the box, I was almost overwhelmed by the smell of cinnamon.

Inside the box, as I'd expected, were four playing cards, a brass ring, a month-old copy of the New Yorker, seven sticks of cinnamon, ten glass beads, and a small piece of paper on which Marie had written "I feel I have no choice but to take what has been offered me."

Jessamyn says I can post her answers to the questions also (so I did!). Everyone please join me in envying her for her place in Vermont; thank you!

Validation: We're hard-wired to learn the right thing to do by watching the reactions of others to the things that we do. This happens most obviously when we're little, and most obviously with the people that are around reacting to us when we're little. We do it by, at some level, forming little internal models of those people, so that we can eventually decide on the right thing to do even if Mommy / Daddy / Caregiver isn't there. We pass all the actions we're considering through the internal model, and see which one gets a smile (or, if we've ended up with our brains connected oddly, see which one gets whatever other response we've ended up seeking). Our brains are very good at this; they're almost certainly optimized for it at a pretty deep level (there are specialized parts of the brain for face recognition and interpretation, for instance).

We don't stop doing this when we're grown up. We continue to be motivated, to one degree or another, to do things that elicit good (or otherwise aimed-at) reactions from people, and if we're around a person or set or class of people enough, we make internal models of those people, and act so as to get the desired reaction from those models. We want our actions to be validated, which is to say that we want our selves to be validated. Even if I know that I'm doing the right thing, I want that smile, that pat on the back, even that amused shake of the head, that means that what I did was right, or that means it had the effect I wanted it to have.

Validate someone today! Not only will it make them feel good, and help your karma, but you may find validation flowing back, and you may even find that the person will become your helpless slave and live simply to carry out your every whim. As long as you always say "thank you".

A quick Web search on "psychological validation" finds this paper, which starts out by saying that gifted children are different from other children, and then says a bunch of things about gifted children that seem likely to be true of all children. So it goes...


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