Filed under: General Musings, Writing stuff, Alzheimer's, Science Fiction, Health, Depression, Art, Society, Connections, Scientific American, Flu, Philip K. Dick, Science, Failure, YouTube, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott | Tags: Alzheimer's, art, bipolar, Blade Runner, blogging, care-giving, Communion of Dreams, direct publishing, health, Her Final Year, hospice, jim downey, John Bourke, Kickstarter, memoir, memory, New York Review of Books, Oliver Sacks, parainfluenza, Philip K. Dick, reality, science, Science Fiction, St. Cybi's Well, video, writing, www youtube
Of late, as I have been slowly getting over the rather nasty bout of parainfluenza I mentioned previously, shedding the more annoying and disgusting symptoms, I’ve also come to realize that just now I am pulling out of the depressive trough of one of my long-term bipolar cycles. It wasn’t a particularly bad trough, and was somewhat mitigated by the success of the Kickstarter back in the fall. Nonetheless, it was there, as I can see in hindsight.
I am frequently struck just how much of our life doesn’t make sense until seen from a distance. Just recently I was surprised at the revelation of *why* the failure of Her Final Year to be more successful bothered me as much as it did: it was because I had seen the book as being a way to create something positive (for the world) out of the experience of being a long-term care provider. To have the book only reach a limited audience was, in my mind, saying that our roles as care-givers didn’t matter.
Which isn’t true, of course, but that was the emotional reality which I had been dealing with. The “narrative truth”, if you will. A term I borrow from a very interesting meditation by Oliver Sacks at the New York Review of Books website titled Speak, Memory. From the article:
There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true (as Helen Keller was in a very good position to note) depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. (The neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman often speaks of perceiving as “creating,” and remembering as “recreating” or “recategorizing.”) Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.
Let me repeat one bit of that: “Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves.”
I think this is at the very heart of why fiction has such power, and appeal. I also think that it explains the well-documented phenomenon of people believing things which are clearly and demonstratively false, if their facts come from a trusted source.
Little surprise that writers of fiction are aware of this very human trait, and have explored it in all manner of ways. I have a note here on my desk, a scrawl written on a scrap of paper some months ago as I was thinking through character motivations in St. Cybi’s Well, which says simply: “We take our truths from the people we trust.”
And here’s another example, from one of my favorite movies, exploring a favorite theme of Philip K. Dick’s:
That theme? The nature of reality. And this is how the Sacks essay closes:
Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.
In other words, that reality is a shared construct. A Communion of Dreams, if you will.
Time for me to get back to work.
Filed under: Artificial Intelligence, Civil Rights, Connections, Expert systems, Government, Marketing, movies, Paleo-Future, Philip K. Dick, Predictions, Privacy, Psychic abilities, Science Fiction, Society, tech | Tags: blogging, civil liberties, corruption, Facewatch, jim downey, literature, Philip K. Dick, police, privacy, Science Fiction, surveillance, technology, The Minority Report, video
I’ve mentioned Philip K. Dick, his genius and his influence on my writing, previously. And I’ve specifically written about his short story The Minority Report in the context of the UK’s plunge into becoming a surveillance society.
Well, even Philip K. Dick had his limitations. He was a man of his time, and couldn’t foresee just how powerful and widespread computing power and expert systems would become. Powerful enough that now it is routine for such systems to mimic one of the human brain’s best tricks: facial recognition. To wit:
Remember, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear. Unless, you know, you worry about abuses committed by others using such a powerful surveillance tool.
Nah, *that’d* never happen, would it?
Filed under: Art, Blade Runner, movies, Philip K. Dick, Predictions, Ridley Scott, Science Fiction, tech
My, my, my. Hit the mother lode: Future Noir.
Just one of the gems there is the Blade Runner Sketchbook.
Less than 8 years to go.
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Art, Ballistics, Blade Runner, Guns, Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, Science Fiction
At first glance the gun looks to be some sort of auto-revolver. It is in fact a Steyr Mannlicher .222 Model SL rifle action and trigger group with some revolver parts tacked on. Note the double set trigger and Steyr’s iconic “butter knife” style bolt handle. It even retains the Steyr serial number.
Man, what a piece of movie history. But then, you know I have a weakness for the movie.
Anyway, as mentioned the other day, we launched the revised BBTI late Thursday. Friday and Saturday each day the hits to the site went up by 10x, and we’re now at about 825,000 total. At this rate it should break a million by next Sunday.
It’s good to get this done and off on its own. I still need to do a write up for another firearms site about it this week, but then I’ll mostly be able to leave this project be for a while and devote my attention to other matters, including a not small pile of conservation work awaiting my attention.
But it’s good to be busy.
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Blade Runner, Connections, General Musings, Health, movies, Philip K. Dick, Ridley Scott, Science Fiction, Survival, Writing stuff
As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been very busy getting ready for our trip to Patagonia, including some long hours to wrap up work for clients before I leave.
But I took some time out for a follow-up visit to my doctor. A good thing that I did.
* * * * * * *
As I sat waiting in the exam room for my doctor to come in, I looked around. All the usual stuff. But high up on top of a cabinet, only barely visible from where I sat on the exam table, was a wooden box. Some light-colored wood, perhaps pine or a light oak. It was a bit battered, but in decent shape, about the size of loaf of bread. Not one of those long loafs of sandwich bread – a short loaf, of something like rye or pumpernickel.
One the end of the box bore a large seal, the sort of thing which was popular in the late 19th century. Big outer ring, inner motif of a six-pointed star, cross-hatched on half of each star arm to indicate motion or something. Center of the star had three initials: JBL. Around the ring was more information: “TYRELLS HYGIENIC INST. NEW YORK CITY U.S.A. PATENT JANUARY, 1894 AUGUST, 1897 JUNE 1903.” Outside the ring, one in each upper corner, and one below in the center were three words: “JOY. BEAUTY. LIFE.”
You can get some idea of what this looked like from this image. So far, I have been unable to find an image online of the box I saw.
* * * * * * *
I’d gone in first part of the week to have blood drawn, for tests my doctor wanted to run. I still have the bruise where the aide who drew the blood went a bit too deep and punctured the back of my vein.
My doctor looked over the lab results, looked up at me. “Not too bad. LDL is a bit high, so is your HDL, which helps. Fasting blood sugar also a bit high, but not bad. I think we should give both of those a chance to settle out some more, as you continue to get diet and exercise back completely under your control. The rest all looks pretty good – liver & kidney function, et cetera. Nothing to be too worried about.”
She handed over the sheaf of papers to me. “But I want to do something more about your blood pressure. It is still dangerously high, though you seem to have made some real progress with the beta blocker.”
Yeah, I had – I’d been testing it. And it was down 50 points systolic, 20 points diastolic. About halfway to where it should be.
“Would you be willing to try something else? Another drug?”
Echo of the first conversation we had on the topic. “What did you have in mind?”
“Calcium channel blocker,” she said. “We could still increase the dosage of the beta blocker you’re taking, because you’re on the low end of that. But I would like to see how your system responds to this additional drug, also at a minimal dosage. Then we can tweak dosage levels, if we need to.”
Another good call. “Sure, let’s try it.”
* * * * * * *
My doctor returned with my prescriptions. “Do you have any other questions?”
I pointed at the box up on top of the cabinet. “What’s the story behind that?”
Caught off-guard, she looked at the box, confused.
“I mean, what was in there? Is there a particular reason you have it?”
“No, not really. Nothing’s in there. I just came across it at an antique shop some years ago.” She looked at me. “Why?”
“There was an author in the 60s & 70s who wrote a lot of stuff I like. Philip K. Dick. He had a lot of health issues, and I can imagine him sitting in a room not unlike this one, looking at some variation of a box like that.” I got down off the exam table. “One of his most important books was made into the movie Blade Runner in the early 1980s. In that movie one of the major characters goes by the name Tyrell, and he has a connection to . . . um, the medical industry. I just thought it an interesting coincidence.”
“Oh.” She was completely lost. I’ve worked with doctors enough to know that they do not like this feeling. “Well, we’ll see you after your trip, check out how the new meds are working, OK?”
Filed under: Blade Runner, BoingBoing, Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Constitution, Cory Doctorow, Emergency, Expert systems, General Musings, Government, Guns, movies, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Predictions, Preparedness, Privacy, Ridley Scott, Science, Science Fiction, Society, tech, Terrorism, Violence
So, according to FOX News, our friends at the Department of Homeland Security will soon have a new trick up their sleeve: MALINTENT.
Homeland Security Detects Terrorist Threats by Reading Your Mind
Baggage searches are SOOOOOO early-21st century. Homeland Security is now testing the next generation of security screening — a body scanner that can read your mind.
Most preventive screening looks for explosives or metals that pose a threat. But a new system called MALINTENT turns the old school approach on its head. This Orwellian-sounding machine detects the person — not the device — set to wreak havoc and terror.
MALINTENT, the brainchild of the cutting-edge Human Factors division in Homeland Security’s directorate for Science and Technology, searches your body for non-verbal cues that predict whether you mean harm to your fellow passengers.
I’m . . . sceptical. Let me put it like this: if this thing actually, dependably, reliably works the way they tout it in the article (go read the whole thing, even if it is from FOX), then the TSA would be perfectly fine with allowing me to carry a gun onto a plane. After all, I have a legitimate CCW permit, have been vetted by a background check and accuracy test, have had the permit for three years, and have never demonstrated the slightest inclination to use my weapon inappropriately. If I could pass their MALINTENT scanners as well, they should be completely willing to let me (and anyone else who had a similar background and permit) carry a weapon on board.
Just how likely do you think that is?
Right. Because this sort of technology does not, will not, demonstrate reliability to the degree they claim. There will be far too many “false positives”, as there always are with any kind of lie detector. That’s why multiple questions are asked when a lie detector is used, and even then many jurisdictions do not allow the results of a lie detector to be admitted into courts of law.
Furthermore, the risk of a “false negative” would be far too high. Someone who was trained/drugged/unaware/elated with being a terrorist and slipped by the scanners would still be a threat. As Bruce Schneier just posted about Two Classes of Airport Contraband:
This is why articles about how screeners don’t catch every — or even a majority — of guns and bombs that go through the checkpoints don’t bother me. The screeners don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough. No terrorist is going to base his plot on getting a gun through airport security if there’s decent chance of getting caught, because the consequences of getting caught are too great.
Contrast that with a terrorist plot that requires a 12-ounce bottle of liquid. There’s no evidence that the London liquid bombers actually had a workable plot, but assume for the moment they did. If some copycat terrorists try to bring their liquid bomb through airport security and the screeners catch them — like they caught me with my bottle of pasta sauce — the terrorists can simply try again. They can try again and again. They can keep trying until they succeed. Because there are no consequences to trying and failing, the screeners have to be 100 percent effective. Even if they slip up one in a hundred times, the plot can succeed.
OK, so then why do it? Why introduce these scanners at all? Why intrude on the privacy of people wanting to get on an airplane?
Control. As I noted earlier this year, about the news that the US military was deploying hand-held ‘lie detectors’ for use in Iraq:
The device is being tested by the military. They just don’t know it. And once it is in use, some version of the technology will be adapted for more generalized police use. Just consider how it will be promoted to the law enforcement community: as a way of screening suspects. Then, as a way of finding suspects. Then, as a way of checking anyone who wants access to some critical facility. Then, as a way of checking anyone who wants access to an airplane, train, or bus.
Just how long do you think it will be before you have to pass a test by one of these types of devices in your day-to-day life? I give it maybe ten years. But I worry that I am an optimist.
An optimist, indeed. Because here’s another bit from the FOXNews article:
And because FAST is a mobile screening laboratory, it could be set up at entrances to stadiums, malls and in airports, making it ever more difficult for terrorists to live and work among us.
This is about scanning the public, making people *afraid*. Afraid not just of being a terrorist, but of being thought to be a terrorist by others, of being an outsider. Of being a critic of the government in power. The first step is to get you afraid of terrorists, because then they could use that fear, and build on it, to slowly, methodically, destroy your privacy. Sure, the DHS claims that they will not keep the information gathered from such scanners. And you’re a fool if you think you can trust that.
Filed under: Alzheimer's, Astronomy, Cosmic Variance, General Musings, John Lennon, Philip K. Dick, Quantum mechanics, Science, Science Fiction, Scientific American, Seed Magazine, Sir Arthur Eddington, Space, Writing stuff
Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving. Yes, about six months late.
* * * * * * *
About two weeks ago Sean Carroll of Cosmic Variance had a teaser post up about a new article of his in Scientific American. Carroll has long been one of my favorite reads in cosmology, and his discussion of the cosmological basis for time’s arrow was delightful. From the opening of the article:
Among the unnatural aspects of the universe, one stands out: time asymmetry. The microscopic laws of physics that underlie the behavior of the universe do not distinguish between past and future, yet the early universe—hot, dense, homogeneous—is completely different from today’s—cool, dilute, lumpy. The universe started off orderly and has been getting increasingly disorderly ever since. The asymmetry of time, the arrow that points from past to future, plays an unmistakable role in our everyday lives: it accounts for why we cannot turn an omelet into an egg, why ice cubes never spontaneously unmelt in a glass of water, and why we remember the past but not the future. And the origin of the asymmetry we experience can be traced all the way back to the orderliness of the universe near the big bang. Every time you break an egg, you are doing observational cosmology.
The arrow of time is arguably the most blatant feature of the universe that cosmologists are currently at an utter loss to explain. Increasingly, however, this puzzle about the universe we observe hints at the existence of a much larger spacetime we do not observe. It adds support to the notion that we are part of a multiverse whose dynamics help to explain the seemingly unnatural features of our local vicinity.
Carroll goes on to explore what those hints (and the implications of same) are in some detail, though all of it is suitable for a non-scientist. The basic idea of how to reconcile the evident asymmetry is to consider our universe, as vast and ancient as it is, as only one small part of a greater whole. We are living, as it were, in a quantum flux of the froth of spacetime of a larger multiverse:
Emit fo Worra
This scenario, proposed in 2004 by Jennifer Chen of the University of Chicago and me, provides a provocative solution to the origin of time asymmetry in our observable universe: we see only a tiny patch of the big picture, and this larger arena is fully time-symmetric. Entropy can increase without limit through the creation of new baby universes.
Best of all, this story can be told backward and forward in time. Imagine that we start with empty space at some particular moment and watch it evolve into the future and into the past. (It goes both ways because we are not presuming a unidirectional arrow of time.) Baby universes fluctuate into existence in both directions of time, eventually emptying out and giving birth to babies of their own. On ultralarge scales, such a multiverse would look statistically symmetric with respect to time—both the past and the future would feature new universes fluctuating into life and proliferating without bound. Each of them would experience an arrow of time, but half would have an arrow that was reversed with respect to that in the others.
A tantalizing hint of a larger picture, indeed.
* * * * * * *
Philip K. Dick, tormented mad genius that he was, said something that has become something of a touchstone for me: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
It is, in fact, a large part of the basis for my skeptical attitude towards life. But it also leaves open the idea of examining and incorporating new information which might be contrary to my beliefs. It is this idea which I explored over the 132,000 words of Communion of Dreams, though not everyone realizes this at first reading.
But what if reality only exists if you believe in it?
That’s a question discussed in another longish piece of science writing in the current issue of Seed Magazine, titled The Reality Tests:
Most of us would agree that there exists a world outside our minds. At the classical level of our perceptions, this belief is almost certainly correct. If your couch is blue, you will observe it as such whether drunk, in high spirits, or depressed; the color is surely independent of the majority of your mental states. If you discovered your couch were suddenly red, you could be sure there was a cause. The classical world is real, and not only in your head. Solipsism hasn’t really been a viable philosophical doctrine for decades, if not centuries.
But that reality goes right up against one of the basic notions of quantum mechanics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Or does it? For decades, the understanding of quantum effects was that it was applicable at the atomic-and-smaller level. Only in such rare phenomenon as a Bose-Einstein Condensate (which in Communion is the basis for some of the long-range sensors being used to search for habitable planets outside our solar system) were quantum effects seen at a macroscopic scale. But in theory, maybe our whole reality operates at a quantum level, regardless of scale:
Brukner and Kofler had a simple idea. They wanted to find out what would happen if they assumed that a reality similar to the one we experience is true—every large object has only one value for each measurable property that does not change. In other words, you know your couch is blue, and you don’t expect to be able to alter it just by looking. This form of realism, “macrorealism,” was first posited by Leggett in the 1980s.
Late last year Brukner and Kofler showed that it does not matter how many particles are around, or how large an object is, quantum mechanics always holds true. The reason we see our world as we do is because of what we use to observe it. The human body is a just barely adequate measuring device. Quantum mechanics does not always wash itself out, but to observe its effects for larger and larger objects we would need more and more accurate measurement devices. We just do not have the sensitivity to observe the quantum effects around us. In essence we do create the classical world we perceive, and as Brukner said, “There could be other classical worlds completely different from ours.”
* * * * * * *
Last Saturday, my sister and her husband came to town, and we celebrated Thanksgiving. Yes, about six months late. Because last year, going in to the usual Thanksgiving holiday, we had our hands full caring for Martha Sr and didn’t want to subject her to the disconcerting effect of having ‘strangers’ in the house. Following Martha Sr’s death in February, other aspects of life had kept either my sister or us busy and unable to schedule a time to get together.
Until last weekend. And that’s OK. Because life is what we make of it. Whether that applies to cosmology or not I’ll leave up to the scientists and philosophers for now (though I have weighed in on the matter as mentioned above and reserve the right to do so again in other books). This I can tell you – it was good to see my sister and her husband, and the turkey dinner we ate was delicious.
Filed under: BoingBoing, Civil Rights, Cory Doctorow, General Musings, Genetic Testing, Government, movies, Philip K. Dick, Predictions, Privacy, Science Fiction, Society, tech, Travel
Primary school children should be eligible for the DNA database if they exhibit behaviour indicating they may become criminals in later life, according to Britain’s most senior police forensics expert.
Gary Pugh, director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard and the new DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), said a debate was needed on how far Britain should go in identifying potential offenders, given that some experts believe it is possible to identify future offending traits in children as young as five.
‘If we have a primary means of identifying people before they offend, then in the long-term the benefits of targeting younger people are extremely large,’ said Pugh. ‘You could argue the younger the better. Criminologists say some people will grow out of crime; others won’t. We have to find who are possibly going to be the biggest threat to society.’
“We have to find who are possibly going to be the biggest threat to society” . . . and turn them into criminals by the way we treat them from the very start.
The Minority Report, anyone? No, not the movie, which was OK, but the original short story by Philip K. Dick, which also shows the dangers of a post-war military regime/mindset to a civil society.
See, here’s the thing: people will largely react to the way you treat them (yes, I am generalizing.) If you take one set of people, and treat them like criminals from early childhood, guess what you’ll get?
I am constantly dismayed by just how much Great Britain has become a surveillance society, to the point where it is a dis-incentive to want to travel there. In almost all towns of any real size, you are constantly within sight of multiple CCTV cameras, and there is increasing use of biometrics (such as fingerprint ID) as a general practice for even routine domestic travel.
But getting DNA of all five year olds, under the excuse that it will better allow for catching criminals? Scary. To then match that up with the notion that you can predict the future behaviour of a 5 year old, based on someone’s model of personality development is just plain insane.
And you know that if they can pull this off in Britain, there will be plenty of people who think it should be instituted here.
Welcome to the future.