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Monthly Archives: July 2007

While were in conversational mode, I realized I never finished posting these YouTube conversations, though Eric and I did finish editing them a while ago.

I like the idea of this kind of taped conversation, though I think the production could be a bit more polished, even on no budget. We’ll try some more in the not too distant future, but for a dry run of it, I’m content with how this turned out.

All together they come out just shy of 30 minutes, about 10 minutes each.

Here they are, in order:

PART I

Installment 1 of a videotaped conversation about Futurism and what might constitute a revolution in wealth creation. Filmmaking, Ben Franklin, Obsessive Amateurs and King Kong are also referenced. Coffee is drunk, cigars are smoked, and a good time is had by all.

PART II
Our conversation continues; Who benefits? Things that are almost free! A mythical fat little girl in Iowa! Killing vs. Living! Independent Texans! Bruce! Sexy Green Things! Unexpected Vulgarity! Expanding the Sphere of Your Life! View on…

PART III
Our conversation concludes; Court the Wealthy, Save the Earth! Scary Old VCRs! Never Stop Spinning! Surprise, Look What Happened! Things like that just didn’t happen back then…! Weird Half Measures! Radio, With Cameras Pointed At It! Eric wants a green condo (his is yellow)! Dystopian Disaster! International Leapfrog! That’s the kind of thing that will happen! And fade out – the end!

I’ve started having an email conversation with a friend about consciousness, and whether we gain anything from having it. I think it might be fun to post some of it here.

This has come about from both of us having read Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight, which is available for you to legally download free here, but which I strongly recommend you actually purchase with real money.

A good, and entertaining, introduction to this can also be had at the mere cost of 20 minutes or so of your time viewing this excellent mock pharmaceutical research presentation:

The Vampire Domestication Slide Show
View it, and then come back and read…

Back already? Then here we go:

The book raises the question, which my friend has explicitly asked:

“Did you come away with any thoughts about what consciousness *is* for, anyway?”

What’s it for? I think Watts suspects it isn’t for anything, but is something like a non-adaptive mutation that got fixed in the population somehow. By non-adaptive I don’t mean maladaptive… you know?

I don’t know if I’d go that far, though. Seems like it must bestow some evolutionary advantage in order to permeate the species, as it does.

One of the things I was trying to imagine after having read the book was, what would a fully non-conscious human really be like… one who’s behavior was dictated primarily by biological efficiency. I don’t think such an animal could actually pass for conscious, or prevail in competition with conscious beings.

On a crude level, if you’re talking about superior biological efficiency, simply voiding your bladder when the impulse begins is far more efficient than holding it in to avoid social awkwardness. I rather think the Watts Reconstituted Vampires would be more likely to appear infantile in this and other respects, despite their superior hunting skills.

Slightly less crude, I’m not sure a fully biologically efficient non-conscious being could adapt to the intricities of contemporary civilization, no mater how omni-autistic they were. In Watts’ premise, these animals evolved as predators of humans, all their non-conscious pattern recognition and predictive brilliance centered around hunting human prey. I doubt such a thing could be made to function among a complex population as depicted in the novel… it has no stake nor ability to appreciate any advantages to civilization. It has no fellow feeling for others of it’s kind, as it has no self awareness. As far as it is concerned, eating and processing nutrition to fulfill biological impulses would be the utter height of purposefulness.

I doubt that any degree of omni-autisitic brilliance could overcome such a narrow scale of ambition when confronted with mass organization that has the advantage of input by reflective consciousness.

I think it seems to me that, although consciousness does seem to be something of a deluded observer of the organism, rather than the pilot, these observations do eventually inform behavior after the fact. I don’t know if this is what really goes on in there, but it seems like the observer experiences action, judges it, imagines consequences or alternatives, which it then may come to strongly desire. This strong desire has some influence on the non-conscious actor in there, maybe by seeping into the connections the actor uses to receive stimulus from the senses, so that this consciously arrived at desire may have a tendency to tilt action in some general way.

Accumulated over a lifetime, this tilt manifests as things like which foreign language you took up in High School, what movie you decide to see next week, or even simple things like successful potty training.

In some way I think the conscious observer realizes it isn’t fully in control of its meatwagon. Tool use seems to me to be the first step down a long road toward replacing these grudgingly cooperative but independent non-conscious steeds with something that pays closer attention to the conscious commands of the rider.

What do you think?

All right, for all my gripes about the Tofflers’ Revolutionary Wealth being a bit short on revolutionary notions, here’s something they tossed off on page 167 that whirled the gears in my head:

Vikram S. Kumar has been working with the Joslin Diabetes Center to design what he calls a “community-based, predictive game” for children with type I diabetes. DiaBetNet aims to develop mental models of their physiologies and motivate them to check their glucose levels more frequently. The game encourages diabetic kids, linked together wirelessly, to play on a computer to predict their own and others’ glucose levels. The idea is to “leverage untapped social dynamics” rather than relying entirely on doctor-patient instructions or parental nagging.
Revolutionary WealthAlvin and Heidi Toffler

If you’re interested in reading more, go here and here.

False-Color Composite of Lake Carnegie, Australia 1999 by Landsat 7 (NASA/USGS)
This false color picture of Lake Carnegie, Australia linked to from Pingnews.com’s Flickr photostream. The picture by NASA is in the public domain.

You know about false-color imaging? Taking a picture of something but altering the colors to illustrate some invisible aspect of the thing? You can show how hot a place is, or wet, or how many minerals of what kinds are present where.

It’s a simple and powerful trick. Map a more obvious or more appealing visual to a set of obscured data to expose the secret truth.

How many people play Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Shared, communal game environments proliferate. So far, elements of gameplay and player’s characteristics are tangentally, if at all, related to anything about their meatspace existence other than their discretionary cash.

But look what DiaBetNet is attempting, and imagine games where aspects of the players’ actual lives, habits and activities, were tied in some measurable way to gameplay. There is alot of talk about a coming wave of home use medical diagnostic devices. How about games where your real world cholesterol level, heart rate, athletic ability, habitual diet, vitamin intake and drug use were directly related to in-game prowess or to active game-play through the uploaded diagnostic information?

A small step, the Wii Fit.

But I’m thinking of something more comprehensive… something that could aggregate and compare vital statistics and diagnostic results with a massive online population to spot trends and danger signs. Where catching early signs of cancer or the onset of alzheimers in other players leads to rewards and where the whole connected system learns from it’s player-base as they use it to become more accurate, to incentivize improvements in healthy lifestyles, and to tell you when something is starting to go wrong, and point you to necessary resources.

But it can’t be some square Surgeon General approved slab of government health propaganda.

The diagnostic activity has to be converted by “false-color” conversion to game play metaphors, that maybe have nothing to do with health in any obvious way. Maybe the players won’t even fully know it. Optimize your diet to your body-type and age in the real world, and hidden levels of the game become available. Stop smoking, notice your experience points earned in raids are increased by some percentage. Do you have an in-game home territory? A castle maybe? The higher your risk of heart disease, the more rats in your castle.

The more of your (certified by some method like diagnostic devices or doctor transmitted information) medical history you make available to the game, the richer your experience. The game subtly and constantly evolves environmental challenges aimed at nudging players closer to their unique optimal health.

The game of life?

In Verner Vinge’s space opera A Deepness in the Sky, he proposes that one of this future’s most valuable professions is that of Programmer-Archaeologist. Essentially, the layers of accreted software in all large systems are so deep, inter-penetrating, idiosyncratic and inter-dependent that it has become impossible to just re-write them for simplicity’s sake – they genuinely can’t be replaced without wrecking the foundations of civilization. The Programmer-Archaeologist churns through this maddening nest of ancient languages and hidden/forgotten tools to repair existing programs or to find odd things that can be turned to unanticipated uses.

“The word for all this is ‘mature programming environment.’ Basically, when hardware performance has been pushed to its final limit, and programmers have had several centuries to code, you reach a point where there is far more significant code than can be rationalized. The best you can do is understand the overall layering, and know how to search for the oddball tool that may come in handy -”
A Deepness in the SkyVerner Vinge

Surfing the Web
This picture of a flexable keyboard tunnel linked to from Lord Cuauhtli Rangel’s Flickr photostream, he owns the picture; made available under a creative commons license, some rights reserved.

This is not all that different from what I actually do in my current job.

I work at a moderately large corporation analyzing and fixing bugs in our production systems. When a system gets too buggy, because:

  • Over time, the other systems it interfaces with have changed and so now it can’t communicate with them as smoothly
  • Elements of the server or network environment in which the programs run have changed, negatively affecting the program’s performance
  • Users have developed odd work-arounds to make the program partially serve some unanticipated need, and now those have taken on real business importance

There is often a desire to rewrite the program to accommodate the new situation. Many times, rewriting the system isn’t really practical, at least short term, because of the number of unknowns that much change would introduce in to the weirdly balanced ecosystem of software.

I spend a significant amount of time digging through old, partially documented or undocumented code, trying to establish relationships between systems and reconstruct reasons for the way things were done, so the fuller implications of changes to be made can be understood.

We’re less than a hundred years into the history of software accretion for our civilization, and already the notion of a Programmer-Archaeologist is not so absurd.

To my knowledge there aren’t any significant tools or proven working methods for this new trade, but looking forward, I’ll bet this is fertile ground for innovation.