Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Prairie Chicken and the Merc

The quixotic quest I've been on since age sixteen thanks to Asimov's robot stories is to see into the Mind of God you might say. I think that people might not be aware of this because I don't remark on it unless asked, and that doesn't happen much since I don't often engage those who might ask it. And so it has been the case for ensuing decades that I've been going after a Holy Grail of sorts (huh, another religious symbolism). And I've actually done some of this stuff; there's evidence! Not as much as I hoped, but not too shabby.

As a run up to the quest, I decided to study psychology and anthropology in college, there unwittingly confirming what I think are universal suspicions about human nature and leaving me henceforth with a certain uneasiness about being a member of Homo sapiens. For example, in more that six decades of life I can't recall a single verifiably "well adjusted" individual, including myself. That's kind of shocking when I think I've never encountered an animal outside of a couple of demented guinea pigs who wasn't well adjusted.

After that I picked up a trick or two (how well Tyrion Lannister said it: "I drink and I know things") that appealed to the corporate world, and being in need of sustenance for self, kin, and animal entourages, I've signed up for various stints in the working world. Almost all of these have taken place in boxy buildings at the termini of commutes of various lengths and within which are desks, chairs, computers, garish overhead lighting, horrid coffee, the whole scene. I'm really a mercenary with software Kung Fu. Instead of courage and boldness, software demands patience and persistence. I'm pretty good at it. I've learned a lot too. And like the plumber you call to get those pipes singing, I take great pride in my work. And I do my share of crappy jobs trudgingly well.

Sitting in cube farms and more these days open work spaces are those who are not mercs or who do a great job pretending to not be. Everywhere there is what I think of as The Prairie Chicken Dance (PCD) that people do to identify and fuse themselves to the collective. Real prairie chicken males bang their dances out with great precision and gusto under the critical gaze of the female. Their reproductive success depends on it.

PCDs take various forms and are not exclusive to the corporate world, but the corporate world has this sort of global PCD that pervades and over-arches it. Here's an example. A certain software company beats a vastly superior competing product by jumping quickly into the fray when its inferior software breaks, something its competitor by definition rarely needs to do, and the hand-holding and face-fanning are enough to ensure subsequent contractual relationships. The dance mesmerizes the customer as surely as any female prairie chicken.

At this point I realize the necessity for the PCD, as I realize that's who we are as human beings. Evolutionary psychologists call these behavior patterns hyper prosocial, which humans do way better than any other species and which mold us into such an inferno of productive organization that can put up a barn in a single day. It has also gouged huge chunks out of the earth, e.g. almost wiped out wolves in the continental U.S., even ones that were far far away from threatening anyone or anything, and this as a result of bureaucratic policies instituted by people who wouldn't know a wolf from a smurf. I'm hopeful that recent generations seem to be letting up on the gas there.

If you are taking a placebo for a condition it really screws things up to know about it. That's what it is like to be doing the Prairie Chicken Dance and realize it. As much as you can rationalize its importance, part of you knows about the arbitrary and primal nature of it, and that takes some of the stuffing out of it. It isn't cynicism, you just can't get your head down and get into it like some others can. Just having a meta-humor about it helps, as I'm sure it helps theatrical performers before going on stage with a smile and a shoeshine for the umpteenth time, but it can't match the zealous energy of the true believer.

There are advantages though. Rituals tend to get untethered and drift into "The Emperer's New Clothes" realm easily, so it is good to have fresh eyes on what is happening. Of course you risk the wrath of the righteous but the manner of taking exception is an art in itself entwined with the art of survival. Voices from Swift to South Park have managed this, although they do tend to take the stuffing out of things.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The identity of God, and why I believe in your God, if not mine

Sometimes I think of my Roman Catholic mother attending Easter week services, during her all-too-brief years with her children. For one who has moved away from her faith, in my case toward something like pantheism, I wonder how awkward that topic would be if I could talk to her again now…

I recently read James Michener's The Source, a story of the Hebrew/Jewish people and their ancestral land that is now Israel. This is an impressive and gripping work of historical fiction, deeply researched, published in 1965. In one vignette, a Hebrew tribe marches out of the desert into Canaan, carrying the invisible yet omnipresent Yahweh in their hearts and minds. Yahweh commands and prescribes customs, laws, and rituals. Although a fiction, the portrayed Hebrew beliefs resonate with something I've suspected for a long time, that the myth of Yahweh was of highest importance, even more so than the truth of Yahweh. For Yahweh was the deified manifestation of the Hebrew people. Yahweh was their identity, the face of the collective tribe.

I suspect that this is so throughout most of history, that God is less about theology and more about identity. An ouroboros of God creating man, and man creating God.

And this is the source of the discomfort when you say you don’t believe in someone’s God. You are saying you don’t believe in them. Many who stand in their faith feel this identification, and this is why denying or challenging their religion is tantamount to denying their existence.
I do not know if supernatural beings exist, but I do believe in religion as a cultural identity myth. And there’s that poor bastardized word: myth. If ever there is a great enemy, as some Christians say, what has happened to that word, becoming synonymous with a falsehood, would be the greatest of his works. For it robs us of mystery, story, and meaning. Nothing is more real than that, transcending even veracity.

If humans are indeed hyperprosocial creatures (see Whip it good), a Being projected into the sky out of the brains and hearts of a group can have stupendous polarization power. We don’t eat that or we do wear that or we whatever because the face in the mirror in the sky says so when we look up moving our lips in unison as we pray. Behavior guided not by rationality but by identity preservation. Myths are the scripts that each must play out.

The Jews are a remarkable example of this. Anticipating and adapting to diaspora, the dense hedge of the Talmud and the rabbinical caste preserved and protected the Jewish identity through centuries of wandering.

This lack of borders may be a reason why pantheism is not as appealing as some other beliefs. Everything is on the inside of God, so where can you point to that which is not self? And without these lines, what is my identity?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whip it good

I’m seeing hyperprosocial everywhere now, after reading this in Scientific American:

How Homo sapiens Became the Ultimate Invasive Species, by Curtis Marean.

“Many human species have inhabited Earth. But ours is the only one that colonized the entire planet. A new hypothesis explains why.”

The hypothesis is that an relatively recent evolutionary funnel shaped us to be hyperprosocial creatures, an indomitable force marching out of Africa:

“Everywhere H. sapiens went, massive ecological changes followed. The archaic humans they encountered went extinct, as did vast numbers of animal species. It was, without a doubt, the most consequential migration event in the history of our planet.”

Some threads drawn from and around this:

Our huge energy-hungry brains, and radically differing facial features serve a purpose of forming and managing alliances and identifying insiders and outsiders.

Humans excel at altruism. Also at spite and schadenfreude.

The open hand gesture is a universal sign of peace, yet human hands uniquely and instantly can be weaponized as fists, against which male facial physiognomy is armored.

Hypersociability is Shiva and Brahma, tearing down and building ever higher.

World War I, precipitated by Archduke Ferdinand's assassination, was an astounding and furious alignment of us and them forces. Many historians still do not know how this came about.

“We have met the enemy and they is us.” --Pogo.

It is wise to think before plunging in. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” --Yeats.

Technology fertilizes the growth of institutional golems:

“Feral edifices are awakening on the planet
mosaics made of fragments of frightened people
tribes once profiting by mimicing machines
now caught inside."

Saturday, March 7, 2015

A religion that might have been but will never be again

It seems that the days of humanity living in a dream world with myths and stories serving as spiritual guides have passed away. For weal or woe truth is king. Combined with the queasiness of uncertain existence, this can mean latching on to belief for dear life. So if unsubstantiated truth is a requisite of religion, I propose three things to keep the butchery and the bizarre at bay:
  1. Ask science if your truth is healthy. We have bodies and minds that allow science to do this. If believers are pumped full of stress hormones or found in piles at the bottom of ravines then someone should bring this up for discussion.
  2. Rituals and customs are fine for binding the tribe, but at one point in time such things did not exist and there may come a time when they need to go (see #1). Example: animal sacrifice.
  3. If God wants you to do something, let God tell you in person. If there is no message then assume God wants you to figure things out on your own. Never ask someone or something what God wants you to do. We have seen how that plays out time after time. If your holy book has some good advice that stands on its own merits (see #1), then by all means proceed, but that is very different from God telling you personally to do something.
One of the stimuli for writing this:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Arificial Intelligence holism

Artificial intelligence doesn't begin with just the brain. Pull back and see an entire creature as a functioning entity. It senses, moves, needs, and interacts with the environment. Animals possess plastic yet durable behaviors that are also modular. Modularity is successful in the hierarchically organized world that we live in. It means re-usability. If a dog learns about eating cake on Tuesday under the porch, another piece of cake on Wednesday behind the house will truly be "a piece of cake"! Hierarchy outside means it must be represented inside. Survival is about using these representations to predict and manipulate the environment. Now look inside the brain and see cells signaling each other, turning each other on and off. Input from sensors and output to motors. Motive to drive the system toward goals that satisfy needs. Memories formed and retained that serve survival. Observe the hierarchical structure of the cortex. The lesson to be taken is that a connectionistic, hierarchical architecture seems to be required. The clay that the system is built out of, and the means by which it comes about, whether by evolution or artifice, will allow for variability of the details.

See also this related argument for embodiment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Peanut Butter Intelligence Test

This accompanying note says something about how old this is:
While waiting around for to get created, I thought
I would make a proposal for an alternative to the Turing Test
for intelligence. 

It is called the Peanut Butter Test. 

The Peanut Butter Test, like the Turing Test, has the drawback/
strength of relying on one entity which is assumed to be
intelligent to determine whether another entity is intelligent.

However, the Peanut Butter Test, unlike the Turing Test, does
not rely on a definition of intelligence as being the ability
to successfully mimic an assumed intelligence.  Instead,
intelligence is defined as the ability to manipulate the
environment in such a way that a continued desirable interface
with the environment is assured.  In other words, forces
contained in the environment which might disrupt the desirable
interface are anticipated and countered.  An entity which can
do this successfully in a complex and threatening environment
would be classified as intelligent.  A desirable interface
could mean anything, but for the Peanut Butter Test, I propose
that it be peanut butter. 

As you may begin to guess, a major ingredient to the Peanut
Butter Test is goals.  Goals are the desirable interface.
I think peanut butter is a good choice because it is fairly
simple, instead of something like money or happiness, which
no one understands (read, knows how to describe).  I personally
believe that to be intelligent, a thing must be able to learn,
and to effectively learn, it must have goals or needs to direct the

Now, suppose a machine is built, and we want to know if it
is intelligent.  We give the machine a taste for peanut butter,
perhaps by attaching a chemical sensor to it which stimulates
a reinforcement circuit or program whenever peanut butter is
detected by the sensor.  It would also make things more interesting
if the peanut butter were "consumed" after being sensed, perhaps
by arranging the machine to be powered by burning peanut butter,
but this is not strictly necessary.  Then, we take the machine out
into some fairly interesting and complex environment like the
wilds of North Dakota or the wilds of downtown Boston, Mass. and
bid it goodbye. 

After a period of time, maybe a couple of years, we go and look
up our machine and see how it is doing.  If it is still sitting
in the same place, with rancid peanut butter stuck on its
sensor, then there is not much to conclude.  However, if it turned
out that the rain had washed away its initial supply of peanut
butter, and it had gone out in search of more, and in the
process of doing that had learned how to speak French, and had
acquired controlling stock in a peanut butter company, and had
acquired several parcels of prime peanut growing land, and was
simply rolling in peanut butter, then we can conclude that our
machine has gone out and assured itself of a continuous supply
of peanut butter regardless of the vagaries of the environment,
and is therefore intelligent. 

                            Tom Portegys, BTL IH, ...ihuxv!portegys

Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Free Will

As a dilettante philosopher, the subject of free will poses a consternating yet delicious slice of thought-food. My personal take is that the world doesn’t have much of an interest in this, although studies show that those who believe they have free will behave differently from those who think they don’t, regardless of whether free will can be proven to be so. So society really does have a stake in the matter.

So recently I started taking some notes on things that I’ve studied and thought about related to free will, which is an ancient, universal, and well-trodden topic. What follows are some of those notes presented in better prose (I hope) than the originals.

We awaken to experience. We presume that babies are almost nothing but self-centered vortices of experience. Experiences lead us to what goes up must come down, 2 + 2 = 4, and to countless cause and effect relationships that just always seem to hold. There are also universal perceptions of logical laws that ring true in the mind, like a thing cannot be in two places at once. Early in life, there is also an inherent acquisition of the concept of self and volition; that we are actors freely writing our own scripts to play out in the world. These are deeply embedded in identity.

There is also the knowledge, pressed home by science, that simple animals with brains made out of the same substance as ours (but less of it), function like clockworks. Put a certain stimulus in and here comes a predictable response. These are the sorts of things that lead one to entertain the strange and disconcerting idea that outside forces that stamp shapes on the mind are really utterly in control of the mind, meaning that volition, or free will, is an illusion. So in a way experience has come around to bite us.

If you are inclined to hang on to free will, you could adhere to the somewhat solipsistic philosophy that experience is the primary reality. And you wouldn’t be alone (humor aside). The physicist Erwin Schrödinger, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, said this about dualism, which is the concept that self and other are distinct:

"These shortcomings can hardly be avoided except by abandoning dualism. This has been proposed often enough, and it is odd that it has usually been done on a materialistic basis.   ....But it strikes me that ...surrender of the notion of the real external world, alien as it seems to everyday thinking, is absolutely essential.”

Speaking of quantum mechanics, which is physics at a very small scale, the theory says two things that might be optimistic for free will proponents: 
  1. Things are not deterministic on a small scale. In a sense, outcomes are the result of throws of unknowable dice.
  2. An “observer”, often synonymous with an experiencer, can force the dice to be thrown, meaning that you have some “say” in what happens and that the world may not be such an inexorable engine after all.
But sadly, if you exist in the world that deflates things somewhat, since whatever you do as an observer might be the result of some previous dice throwing.

Can determinism, i.e. no free will, be proven? If you try to show this by experiment, you need to separate yourself from the subject in order to control the input and output variables. The second point above indicates that this might be problematic. But what is more, there is one experiment that cannot be done, which is proving that the universe as a whole is deterministic, for two reasons: 
  1. Observers by definition contained within the universe, and thus are part of the experiment.
  2. The results of an experiment also part of the universe, thus changing the state of it. This means that experiments on a universal scale are never repeatable.
Pantheists who are believers that they are part of god-as-universe might find this lack of provability to be favorable news, whether free will fans or not.

Consider if determinism were to be proven, it would be an interesting but academic point, as exploiting that knowledge would of course be coerced by destiny. Predicting some events might turn out to be less than hoped for as well. For example, suppose the stock market becomes predictable with a new algorithm. The algorithm will quickly become part of the stock market, leading down a tail-chasing path that might be essentially unpredictable.

There is also the cat version of free will: whatever happens, that's what I meant to happen (from George Carlin joke about a cat running into a glass door).

August 18, 2014