27 January 2007

Consciousness Caused My Collapse

In my previous post I ripped a Horatian quote totally out of context merely to introduce some ideas on trans-humanism. Now in this post, as promised, we're going to pimp our Descartes. The nature of consciousness is something that will steer, or limit, our post-human possibilities. We'd better explore it vigorously. So fasten your seat belts, make a save game, and back up your mind's state matrix onto that two exabyte flash drive you bought at Target last week. Here we go.

Descartes' fame, in addition to the famous "cogito ergo sum" quip, is his much discussed idea now called substance dualism. To him Mind -- our conscious thoughts, intentions, awareness is not something of this material world. It is of different substance than Body. For Descartes, when he says "mind" it's clear that he really means "soul" (thus you see the stakes on the table in this debate).

This theory has taken a huge beating in the intervening centuries. The most topical criticisms come from neurobiological research. In case you haven't already, check out the Transient Gadfly's recent post "Ghost in the Machine, Schmost in the Machine" in his blog. Recently Chalmers (the aussie philosopher, not the superintendent) introduced a novel example of "real" substance dualism inspired by the movie The Matrix. Today we have something better; we have Second Life. From the perspective of this virtual world Mind really is something not of the world (the second life world) since all intentionality in SL actually springs from people at computers in the real world. In SL, substance dualism is reality.

So now consider a Second Life avie named "Rene Descartes". Let's imagine that he has to puzzle out his theory of mind because he doesn't know that he's really at a computer running a simulation. This could be because: (a) he's the first truly emergent artificial consciousness, a sapient program that was created in SL, (b) he was a grotesque freak at birth, a bare human brain (his parents, neurobiologists, raised him in a vat and linked him into SL to give him a sensorium), or (c) he's just a guy who has absolutely NO LIFE and has been playing online games so long that his conscious mind is no longer aware of the real world -- just lets his limbic system run his body. Take your pick.

Rene studies the world and notes that the basic unit of matter is called the prim. Prims come in a handful of varieties which differ only geometrically (cubes, cylinders, spheres, for example). These prims can be stretched, holed, twisted, and textured to account for the abundance of form he sees in the world. All things, from castles to clothing accessories, are built from prims. All things, that is, except for people (well, and particles -- but they are not salient to this). Avatars are not built-up from prims, but instead are single irreducible objects described by the coordinates of a wire frame mesh (and some textures). In a way, avatars (people) are a special, different kind of primitive -- one that demonstrates intention. The behaviors of avatars do not result from the perceived mechanics of the universe. Prims, by contrast, are entirely deterministic based on their properties. For Rene things are much simpler than for his real world namesake, for he has readily at hand a fundamental, non-divisible element of the universe, the avatar, whose behavior is non-deterministic (and at least in his case definitely inspired by intention). Rene ponders this for a bit and concludes that his avatar, being a simple object with no internal structure, cannot possibly be the seat of his complex Mind, with all its intention and qualia. Thus the avatar must really just be an "interface" for his Mind, which is something not of the world.

Perhaps there are other SL philosophers who disagree. They note that avatars are described by a set of numbers just as prims are. For prims the set of numbers gives their geometric dimensions, specifies twists, cuts, etc. For avatars a *much* larger set of numbers describes the wireframe of body shape, eyes, hair-style, and so on. The other philosophers note the difference in numeric complexity and respond that Mind results from it. They say that data structures of sufficient size can become conscious. Put another way -- Mind emerges from sufficiently large data sets. But Rene scoffs at this. If that were true, he says, then sufficiently large linked builds (lots of prims put together to make a large or detailed object) should have the required data size for thought. Does this mean Aimee Weber's solar system build is conscious?

However you analyze it, the presence of bodies which have no internal structure and whose behavior flows directly from intention is a big "tell" for the universe. But suppose now that you are a designer at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. You've been given a mandate to obfuscate the substance-dual reality of SL. In fact, you have unlimited budget and access to all the server computation you desire.

You'd probably start by adding micro-detail to the universe. Avatars would no longer be special objects, but would be constructed from prims just like everything else. You'd even add internal mechanical details -- muscle, tendon, and bone prims. Perhaps even a brain composed of neuron prims. The person sitting at the keyboard in the real world would be sending signals to the prim-brain which would then make the prim-muscles move. The problem you'd run into is that Rene and his ilk have something I'll call the "edit sense". In SL you can easily apprehend the structure of any object, and zoom in to any level of detail with the camera. This edit sense obviates the need for electron microscopes, imaging, supercolliders that are the tools of our science for exploring inner structure. So no matter how micro you design, Rene's going to be able to dive down very quickly and find your interface -- the level of matter where the user's intentions map to physical (in SL) objects. He will discover objects at some level which do not behave deterministically, and conclude that these are special objects which serve to connect the world of Mind with the universe.

So you realize that you can't defeat Rene's attempts to reverse engineer reality with mere detail. At some scale you have to allow the interface, and objects whose behavior does not flow from the mechanics of the universe. At this point you decide to get really clever. Since you can't eliminate the indeterminacy that results from the interface, instead you decide to make indeterminacy a fundamental property of the universe! You craft the physics of SL so that *all* objects, at a suitably small level, behave indeterministically. To keep this universe from just falling apart you weave in rules that will make the observed macroscopic determinism flow from the statistical behavior of the large number of constituent parts. In this universe Rene will never be able to find the interface where intention flows into the universe because it is concealed in the greater indeterminism of all things. In other words, to obfuscate the nature of reality from Rene, you'd create quantum mechanics.

How interesting that the world we actually live in, with Schrodinger's Cat and the Uncertainty Principle, is just the sort of one you'd build if you wanted to make things tough for philosophers. Now I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that we all are actually brains-in-a-vat in some other universe and that this-is-all-a-sim. That would be outrageously speculative (even for me!). I'm not even going to say that this gives credence to the Consciousness Causes Collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics favored by the "What the bleep..." crowd.

No, I just think it's interesting, and worthy of further exploration. Meanwhile I'll email the folks at Linden Lab and ask them to put quantum physics into the next version of Second Life...

22 January 2007

(1) Horace, (2) Descartes

It's a cheesy old Latin joke, but one that I can't help retelling. Philosopher Descartes said "Cogito ergo sum" -- I think therefore I am. Poet Horace said "Non sum qualis eram" -- I am not what I was. Some people don't realize that Horace wrote his words seventeen centuries before Descartes' utterance. Yes, without some knowledge of history one can mistakenly put Descartes before the Horace. Buh dum bum.

So in this post I'm going to carpe blogem and spin the ancient poet's quote wildly out of context. It will serve as an intro to the next post, which will resurrect Descartes in a virtual world and watch him puzzle out his mind/body dualism in a much simpler space.

The Horace quote appears to be just your mundane nostalgia -- a look back to a time of youth and vigor. Not much fun there, so let's just look at the phrase at face value -- the recognition of a transformation of being. I invite you to consider how we as individuals are morphing slowly (but with acceleration) along a transhuman evolution. I'll suggest that this began with the emergence of human civilization. The awareness that "we are not what we were" is already visible in the earliest writings. In Gilgamesh, for example, Enkidu is at first a "wild man" -- a human animal who hasn't yet made the change to civilized consciousness.

Biological change happens very slowly, over thousands of generations. Cultural change, however is much faster. Human civilization allowed us to grab the reigns of evolution, but with a certain amount of dissonance. As beings adapted to the pace of biological evolution we were ill-prepared to deal with the rapid pace of social change. So the first side effect felt by our proto-transhumans is a that feeling of having to keep up with an ever-increasing speed of life. The idea of the "fast-pace" of modern life is not actually a modern idea. It pre-dates even the industrial revolution. In fact, it may pre-date Horace by several centuries. I remember reading a quote from Aesop (at least I think it was Aesop -- I can't find the quote anywhere or I'd give you a link) which went something like "I saw a man pissing while he walked hurriedly along. Good gods! If this is what our life is like now, in the future will we have to shit as we run?" I'd be indebted to anyone who can track down this half-remembered quote.

Since the dawn of the Internet age I find that there are fewer citations on the fast-pace of modern life. That rapidity seems to be pretty much accepted as a given nowadays. Possibly we've already morphed on to the next stage which is more about abundance than speed. Now we complain not about life's pace, but about being overwhelmed (hence the reason for this blog). It's the "not one song, but 10,000" that Transient Gadfly posted about here (BTW -- you should check out his delightful blog: http://theoddsareone.blogspot.com/). The 20th century metaphor for our life's speed was the jet. The 21st century's emblem for our life's surplus is the Web.

I'm not going to speculate on where we're headed. Not yet, at least -- I'm still "processing". Like most of you I live in a world where my methods of communication (cell phones, email, blogs), my entertainment (digital media, computer games), my primary access to information (duh) all did not exist in my childhood. Like the guys in Firesign Theater said: "Dealing with today's complex World of the Future is like having bees live in your head. But, there they are!" Sure we're future shocked, but these are likely just growing pains. Non sumus qualis eramus -- we are not what we were. You may feel overwhelmed, but the fact is that if you're reading this blog you're no longer an Enkidu. You've already made the change. In the game of posthumanity, you a playah.


For further exploration: http://www.singinst.org/, http://www.natasha.cc/primo.htm

19 January 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons in Low Earth Orbit

The media have jumped on the report published in Aviation Week a couple days ago concerning a successful Chinese anti-satellite test. Most of the articles discuss the possibility of a newly emerging "space race" and the possible militarization beyond the atmosphere. I'm not going to speculate on the true intention of the Chinese in the asat test -- hey, for all I know this is just a ploy to introduce a new sport, satellite shooting, into the Beijing Olympics. Instead I want to look at the "environmental" impact such an action causes.

In this case the environment is the increasingly crowded near earth space we call Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In terms of outer space real estate this is the prime beachfront property. The only other tony spot is the geosynchronous zone -- but that's a more specialized neighborhood. LEO doesn't really have a well-defined boundary. Basically it starts where the atmosphere is thin enough that orbits are possible (without frictional heating slowing the satellite so much that it plunges and burns up). Wikipedia suggests this is roughly 200km up from the surface. It extends a couple thousand kilometers further. The idea is that fuel/payload costs just keep rising the higher up an orbit you want. Additionally the power required to communicate with a satellite increases as well, of particular concern for satellite phones. Thousands of satellites currently reside in this space, and with the exception of the Apollo moon voyages, *all* of manned space experience is in LEO. We depend on it for communications and imaging.

The article states that the destroyed satellite was the victim of a kinetic energy kill (as opposed to, say, an explosion or laser pulse). Basically, we're talking about a smart bullet, delivered by a suborbital ballistic missile, which scored a direct hit and blasted the satellite to bits (see http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1359/chinese-test-asat).

The trouble with blasting an orbital object is that the bits don't "settle down". Instead they create a debris field. One satellite in a nice, circular polar orbit at 800km becomes 40,000 tiny fragments all spreading outward. But because this is LEO, and because the fragments don't have escape velocity, they just go into individual eccentric orbits around Earth. As their orbits are now all wonky they don't move "in-step" with satellites moving through LEO, and thus present a hazard. They become fast moving shrapnel that weave back and forth through the surrounding circular orbits. Only after years will their orbits degrade (from minute atmospheric friction effects at perigee) and they burn up on re-entry. A single hit from one of these fragments would likely knock out another satellite, or puncture the hull of a manned spacecraft.

So for me the issue with the Chinese asat test is about polluting this finite resource that is Low Earth Orbit. I think the spacefaring nations need to get together and produce some comprehensive regulation. Without international agreement on the usage of LEO, we risk a devastating Tragedy of the Commons situation where the region becomes nearly unusable. Satellites launched will only have a short lifetime before some stray fragment destroys them. Manned missions will no longer be safe.

Will we as a species, I wonder, be any better at managing the outer space environment than we are with our terrestrial one?


The market is Open.

13 January 2007

All Your Bayes Are Belong To Us

The war went badly for us in 2006. Here I'm referring to the global war of all computer users against the vile Spammers. Our inbox's best defense against villainy, the Bayesian filter, was soundly defeated by the spamming hordes. First they started with using "found text" to add to their illicit emails -- text random enough to confuse our filters into thinking the mail is probably legit. But by the summertime I started seeing their latest bit of simple devilry -- the image spam. Instead of placing their pharmacology ads or "pump and dump" schemes in text, they use a jpeg. Naturally, this completely bypasses the spam filter.

Apparently anti-spam companies are trying to adapt by developing apps that use OCR to identify image spam (http://lwn.net/Articles/196704/). I admit to being astonished by this. It seems an utter waste of processing power to bring such heavy weaponry to bear. Far simpler, and less CPU intensive, methods should suffice. The strategy depends on how the image is sent. One article I read said that the images are sent as a link, and automatically displayed via most mail client's HTML capability. Another article said that the actual jpegs are sent as basically an attachment (and again, automatically displayed by the mail client).

If the images are sent as a link, that means that the spammers have servers somewhere, or at least some Web repository (perhaps on a free personal site) where the image is stored. Those servers/sites then become targets we can shut down. More immediately the links themselves are text which Bayesian filters should learn to reject.

If the images are sent directly with the emails then we have an additional problem. Since images are much larger than text these image spams are at least 10X the size of text spams. This means that 10X the Internet bandwidth is taken up sending them everywhere. Such spam poses problems not just for the recipient but, in aggregate, for all users of the public Internet. As for stopping this spam from reaching our inbox, again -- we don't need to waste cycles doing OCR. Mail clients can simply checksum all attachments. That checksum can then be used as a word for the Bayesian filter. This is going to be most effective at the mail server level -- if the same checksum shows up on emails going to a lot of users you can be pretty sure of its spamminess. To defeat this simple strategy the spammers would have to steganographically alter (slightly) each image. While not difficult, at least it puts the CPU burden on the spammers, not on us.

I scanned the "bulk" folder of my Yahoo mail account. In the last 24 hours I received 12 spams. Two of them were simple text (one was so-called "empty spam" -- just words without a spam payload). The other ten were image spam with the actual images sent. The image spams were about 30K each. So that's 300 kilobytes of spam waste that had to traverse the Internet to get to me. Just some back of envelope work: if there are on the order of a billion email inboxes worldwide, and they receive this much spam daily as I do, then we are talking about 300 terabytes of image spam devouring our bandwidth each day. Nasty.


The market is Open.

12 January 2007

The Good Comet

The windows of my flat look out to the west, across Elliot Bay and the Sound towards Bainbridge, the Olympics, and the setting sun. Last evening a minor miracle (given Seattle's recent weather) occurred and the sky was clear. This, I determined, meant that I had one shot to catch the supposedly brilliant but hard to find comet McNaught -- the Bringer of Hope for our troubled times.

McNaught is very close to the sun, and (I read) only visible in the first half hour after sunset. It emerges slowly from the deepening twilight and then descends below the horizon. When the stark red light streaming sideways through my windows began to fade, and the shadows cast on the wall opposite the windows blurred, I knew the time had come. I went to the window and gazed, seeking our astral visitor. One account said McNaught was so bright that the author initially mistook it for a plane. I looked. And there it was! Amazing! And she was right -- it does look just like a plane. Oh, wait...that *is* a plane. Crap. Contrails highlighted by dusk light look pretty cometlike.

Over the next fifteen minutes I scanned the horizon, peering above the distant hills of Bainbridge Island, searching in vain. Then Venus emerged, higher in the sky than I had expected. This meant that the comet was likely also still well above the horizon. I pressed my search higher, beyond the red of the sunset and into the blurry blue.

Another fifteen minutes passed before I finally found it. McNaught appeared, quite suddenly it seemed, in exactly the part of sky I had been searching all along. How had I not seen it before? It sported a long wispy tail, easily the best of the handful of comets I've observed. I reached for my binoculars and, naturally, lost sight of the comet. The sky was still plenty bright, and there wasn't much contrast for my visual system to work with. But soon I found it again, and this time noted the point on Bainbridge directly below it, so that I would be able to easily get a lock on it again after turning my eyes away. Under 15X from my IS binoc's McNaught was extraordinary, and seeing it against the deep red cyclorama of the sunset, with the sky still bright, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Now IANAA (I am not an astrologer), but I can only conclude that this beautiful comet, appearing in our skies at the beginning of the year, is a good omen for the shape of 2007. Here it is so close to the sun, our source of life. That must mean that 2007 will be a marvelous year of sunlight and warmth. Wait a minute. Greenhouse gases. Global warming. Predicted record temperatures worldwide --- um, forget I said any of that. There's no significance to the comet being near the sun. It's a good comet, bringing a message of hope. Yes, look at it -- it's almost setting. Its feathery tail pointing up while its tiny little head almost touches the hills. Like a cute little missle about to descend upon Bainbridge bringing nuclear-tipped terrorist destruction. What am I saying!? No -- strike that. This is a *good* omen. It has to be. This comet has journeyed far to see us. All the way from the frozen depths of the outer solar system. It has trekked its narrow elliptical path from the deep silent dark straight for the bustle and life of the inner system. It's an emissary, an ambassador of goodwill from the great emptiness. One by one it's crossed the orbits of the planets, greeting them with its message of peace as it passes. Hello, Earth. Looking good, Venus. Hot enough for ya, Mercury? Soon it will swing round the sun, with perihelion a scant 15 million miles, half the distance of Mercury. There the intense radiance of Sol will boil it, ice and rock alike, so that only a cinder remains for its return trip. Aw, geez. I give up. Happy 2007.


The market is Open.

11 January 2007

Clearing The Overhead

I used to work for that software giant across the lake (vis-a-vis Seattle-proper), and the whole time I was there I walked around the office in a little bit of a fog. It was my first real job, and I functioned there with only the dimmest idea of the larger machine in which I was a cog, let alone how it worked. I would tell myself that it didn't matter, that these things were implementation details with which I need not concern myself. But regardless it seemed to take up space in my brain, operating there, sucking up the back end memory cache, sometimes sneaking in and using a portion of the hard drive as RAM. It was an active process in a partition of my active memory I couldn't access or sudo kill -9. In order to work where I was working, the process had to keep running and be given free reign of as much extra brain space as it wanted.

When I moved over to a company that was just as complicated, but was and still is a Unix/Linux shop, that process halted and I was left with a whole new load of free memory and a blinking command line prompt. It's probably not surprising that working at MS is an incredibly apt metaphor for using any one of their applications--in order to get the simple function that one wants, one must accept the enormous overhead of the process that performs it as well as 10,000 other ones that one doesn't. It's perhaps no more surprising that it's a similarly good metaphor for Being In The World these days. If one wants to be able to select ones media/information/entertainment/identity without having it fed directly to one by, say, a major corporation or network television, one has to buy the entire bloated application. One cannot find one new song, one can only find 10,000. One can no longer have a pocket calculator that adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides, and takes square roots. One can only have "...a powerful tool you can use to analyze, communicate, and manage information, to make more informed decisions...publishing a financial forecast for an executive review or providing a business report to an external auditor...communicate your analysis in professional-looking reports and charts that are much easier to create." No longer satisfied with your eyes and ears, the information age wants your brain space.

10 January 2007

Just Stuff

It is probably no surprise to you that there is a website devoted to photos of cats with "stuff" on them. Still, the pics at: http://www.stuffonmycat.com/ make for an enjoyable moment or two. While some shots are of costumed (and very patient) felines, many are more candid and funny.

-- Per

The market is Open.

08 January 2007


About twenty years ago an English professor named Howard Hertz taught me to read. Though arguably I was reading fine long before, he showed me how to approach a text with considerably more sophistication than before. I learned to appreciate Keats, to delight in Derrida, and to slog bravely through Hegel's Phenomonology of Mind.

He used Blake's The Sick Rose as an example of the power of poetry to simultaneously manifest many levels of meaning. Here I give you my 21st century take on that little gem:

O n00b, thou art pwned!
The zero-day worm
That flies on the 'net,
In the activeX control,

Has found the IP
Of thy Windows XP,
And its dark secret code
Makes thee a zombie.


The market is Open.

05 January 2007


Back in the 80's a frequent statement given to newbie undergrads at Caltech was "Studying at Tech is like taking a drink from a firehose". In that vein one can look at the monstrous information space now available to anyone with sufficient bandwidth and hardware, and declare: "Finding cool stuff to read/learn/do in today's Internet society is like taking a drink from a tsunami". The allocation of the non-scarce resource we call information presents extraordinary challenges to us, the future-shocked inhabitants of this still-accelerating age. Agalmics, a term still new and arcane enough that it can't be found in Wikipedia (Jan, 2007), is a nascent field of study which explores "non-scarcity" -- in a way it's the B side of the Economics album. I first acquired the term in Charles Stross's book, Accelerando (http://www.accelerando.org/book/), and have since discovered this paper: http://www.openverse.com/~dtinker/agalmics.html.

With respect to our information overload, the agalmic problems of discovery and filtering replace the economic problems of demand and supply. RSS feeds and the blogosphere provide ways we currently navigate and chart these vast waters. Until we can spawn intelligent agents to surf and filter for us in real time, these tools will have to do. That is my intention for starting this blog.

Dragging the academic obfuscation slider far to the right: This blog asymptotically tends towards the creation of a textual protocoled Hamiltonian network of minds with demographically entangled world lines who use it to exchange packets of broadly filtered, highly relevant content.

And to the left: It's like a group journal of a bunch of people who share similar views and write about the cool shit they've discovered.

The rules:
Anyone can read this blog (wouldn't be in the agalmic spirit otherwise).
Anyone registered to blogspot can comment.
Posting is limited to a relatively small group of authors, initially pulled from my space of friends and cohorts. This list will expand to include others as desired by the original set of authors.

Posts can, and should, be about anything: news, jokes, recipes, ideas, art. They can be long and rambling discourses, or simply "Hey check this out: ". Anything that you might consider passing on in an email to friends is fair game for content. I'll try to prime the pump for a few days with regular postings of interesting tidbits, and hope that critical mass is reached.

Happy Posting!

The market is open.