10 November 2010

Avatar Abuse

Last evening, whilst watching television, I noticed an advert for a bread product called "Genius". It wasn't the nonsensical name of the product that caught my eye but the fact that they were using a CGI'd Albert Einstein to promote it. I have been thinking for a while about this growing trend of "re-animating" dead people to use for commercial purposes. I am not altogether comfortable with it.

The famous faces being portrayed are dead, so the use/abuse of their "image" is of no concern to them. My argument is not really to do with dignity either, as I often wonder about the true motivation of those seeking to preserve the "dignity" of the dead. Neither is this connected to the issue of rights or legality: some individual or corporate body (sic) has presumably sold the rights to the deceased's "image" to the marketeers: I am sure the transactions were all above board - at least within the hopelessly anachronistic confines of our current legal systems. My concern is the larger issue of the overall control of the wider "self" or avatar.

It's unlikely that Einstein (for example) would have spent a great deal of time worrying about how his image might be used after his death. He may not have imagined the technology that would make such accurate visual re-animation possible. We can be pretty sure, however, that given a choice of uses of his avatar, having it punting bread-products would not have been high on his list. But this is a flippant example. Now imagine your avatar being used for purposes you positively detest: you were a conservationist but your avatar is a smiling apologist for an oil company; you were an atheist but your avatar is a kiddie-fiddling priest; you were a lifelong anti-militarist but your avatar is a gun-runner in an 18-cert blood and guts video game. And so on. We may get the chance, if we are forced down this route, to protect against these abuses in our wills. But the less-recently deceased will not.

I think that this kind of burgeoning abuse is connected to our own mistaken "body centrism": we think of ourselves as self-contained units of being - homunculi driving our own "self-tanks" across the battlefields of daily life. You forget that you are probably the only people that sees yourself that way. Every other person perceives us differently: we are one person to our mothers; another to our wives/husbands; another to our colleagues at work. And in the wider sense we are even less definable: we are more like a story; a web of impressions and moments; a collection of images both still and moving. One that persists for others even after we die.

If one steps back for a moment and looks at the avatar as the "extended self", then everything changes. From this point of view there is a very real (if diluted) part of our "self" in every representation of that self. In this scenario there is a part of Albert Einstein in the horrible Genius bread man. If you think about it another way it must be true, otherwise why would the advertisers wish to use his image in the first place? A portrayal of Albert Einstein with no Albert Einstein in it would be an empty thing indeed. Kind of like a food with absolutely no nutritional value.

I think that the realisation of the concept of the avatar is a good thing. Avatars let us extend ourselves outwards to touch other realities, and to communicate with other people in new and diverse ways. But what happens to the avatar when the "host" dies? Perhaps we have some responsibility to protect those fragile ghosts from the machinations of those who would seek to abuse them.

13 July 2010

Food: What if we've got it all wrong?

Something to contemplate: What if a species suddenly (in relative terms) developed technology which allowed it to grow food, rather than having to find it and/or chase after it? What if it learned a way to manipulate and "enhance" the calorie-poor grown food to make it more calorific and filling? What if it began to eat less of the calorie, fat and protein rich animal-sourced food that used to be available to it and replaced this with refined carbohydrate-rich plant matter?

What I have outlined above is a large and far-reaching change to the evolution-linked diet of a species. By evolution-linked I mean the diet that the species had adapted to over an evolutionarily-significant time period i.e. hundreds of thousands to millions of years. It's not credible to argue that we could safely make this enormous transition without the requisite change to our biology. And there just hasn't been enough time to allow that to happen.

I have been running a diet experiment on myself for the past seven years. My views on human diet have not come about as a direct result of this but my personal experience has certainly influenced my thinking on the subject.

I was incredulous when I first heard about the Atkins diet. I'd never heard of anything like it. How could one possibly eat copious amounts of fat and protein without getting fatigued, constipated, obese; or in some other way damaged? I was also, however, intrigued. I read a little about the general principles of the diet. I bought and skim-read the Atkins books then began the diet. Friends and family were concerned that it may cause some kind of long-term harm. I wasn't worried. I was enjoying the food, it seemed to suit my digestion and metabolism, and I was losing two kilos per week.

I have not, of course, stuck to the diet rigidly for seven years. Cravings for carbohydrate, particularly bread and potatoes, sometimes arise. And when I start to eat those kinds of foods I just want to eat more of them. My weight goes up during holiday periods when I am poor at regulating what I eat. But I can always use the diet to get my weight down again in short order. I am heavier now than I was after my initial couple of months on the diet but not by a great deal. My weight is under control and I am in good health. I don't exercise.

My personal experience of this kind of ketogenic diet would, of course, be classed as anecdotal. That is fair. It is not scientific evidence and I use it only to illustrate my personal interest in the subject. I have fed (sic) that interest by reading various articles and books about ketogenic diets. I recently read "The Diet Delusion" by Gary Taubes. I now have a much clearer understanding of how ketogenic diets work and how the current dreadful state of half-truth and misinformation about human diet has emerged.

The evidence is still incomplete and many lost years of vitally important research and studies still remain to be made up for. But the outline is clear: fat is not bad for you; eating copious refined carbohydrates causes the body to store fat; obese people are not fat because the eat too much - they eat a lot because they are fat; refined carbohydrates appear to be addictive and abuse of these substances can lead to diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

I think that an important part of the reason we have held to the completely unproven notion that fat is bad for us, is a puritanical one. Fat just seems like it should be bad. It can be found in lots of delicious but somehow 'sinful' foods. It also seems logical that fatty substances should block up our arteries in the same way that they can block up our drains. But this 'common-sense' notion is wrong. Our drains do not process fat poured into them whereas our bodies are complex homeostatic mechanisms, finely tuned to process and distribute the nutrients presented to them in the most efficient manner possible. But it's unfair to blame people for these misapprehensions when the patched-together 'fat hypothesis' has be fed to us as fact for decades.

Some doctors actually think that ketosis is bad for you. This makes no sense because it ignores the evolutionary perspective. Human beings have been 'in ketosis' for millions of years. The 'ketone bodies' produced in the body and used by the brain when very little carbohydrate is consumed, are a very efficient fuel and probably the one we have evolved to use, rather than the glucose fuel our brains have increasingly utilised over the last century. I wonder (as an aside) which fuel our brains run most efficiently on.

We are also being fleeced by marketing gimmicks such as 'Low GI'. The Glycaemic Index of a food could be a very useful metric if it actually factored in all the variables. One of the most mind-boggling omissions in the Glycaemic Index scheme is the effect of fructose. Bizarrely fructose, known affectionately as 'fruit sugar', is excluded because it passes directly to the liver and is metabolised there rather than passing into the bloodstream in the way that glucose does. Fructose therefore has a negligible effect on 'blood sugar', allowing marketeers to sell it as a 'Low GI' health product. This, I think, borders on criminal. Consumers naturally make the association with 'healthy stuff' like fruit and buy the product. But fructose appears in fruit and veg only in relatively small quantities. An apple, for example, is far more nutritionally complex than a spoonful of high-fructose corn syrup and the body will, therefore, metabolise the fructose content more slowly and less harmfully. High fructose diets can, in the longer term, induce high blood sugar, high insulin levels and insulin resistance. The 'table sugar' we are probably most used to consuming (the white/brown sugar you put in your tea) is known technically as sucrose and is derived from 50% fructose/50% glucose - it's all bad.

This is a vast subject and I am just highlighting a few examples of how we have this wrong. The 'fat bad/carbohydrate good/sugar indifferent' dogma is decades out of date. And it is just that: a dogma. Too many professional reputations and company fortunes have been staked on it to pull back now. Government health agencies are going to look pretty stupid too.

I have have no particular desire to eat animals. It is fair to call it corpse-food. But my body is the result of an evolutionary process which has come to utilise this matter in a very efficient way. There are, of course, ways to eat healthy quantities of fat and protein without eating dead animals. But we must accept that we need those nutrients and that we cannot live on poor vegetable matter and starchy stodge alone.

We are not omnivorous in the sense that our early ancestors might have been. Our evolutionary path brought us to a point where we had the advantage of large brains in the process of hunting and killing abundant prey. The 'symbiosis' with our prey shaped our diets and our metabolisms to a point where we could derive optimal benefit from the nutrients. Large brains also aided in the process of foraging and discovery of useful 'gathered' foods such as shellfish and, occasionally, nuts and berries. No large quantities of carbohydrate of any kind and virtually no refined carbohydrates whatsoever were available until the advent of agriculture.

I am not 'on a diet'. I eat the food I eat because I enjoy it and because my body requires it. As I write this my brain is running on ketone bodies so please feel free to highlight any errors in my facts, spelling or grammar to use as examples of glucose-deprivation-induced dementia.

08 June 2010

Mind Over Me

The fields of neurofeedback and biofeedback have not received the kind of scientific study and investment that they warrant.

Neurofeedback is about taking brain wave readings, from an EEG for example, and feeding those readings back to that brain. This feedback could be in audio, visual or tactile form. The theory is that the participant can then, by modifying his/her thought patterns, learn to alter those brain outputs and receive some physical health benefit from the process. Biofeedback is a similar idea but also encompasses other forms of input such as GSR (Galvanic Skin Response), hand warmth and heart rate.

It is now common knowledge that humans can, with training, gain some control over their GSR. It would be harder to fool a lie-detector if this wasn't the case. We also know that the brain can be trained to achieve certain brain wave states such as alpha (a kind of "open focus" state) or theta (edge-of-sleep "hypnogogic" state). So the debate is really about whether gaining a measure of control over these outputs is, in any way, beneficial to us.

We aren't straying into "brain training" territory here. The contention of brain training is that we gain some general IQ/mental fitness benefit by playing logic puzzles etc. Neurofeedback or "brainwave training" is about being able to "see" the frequencies of our neural outputs and teach ourselves to modify them at will. It's a different process altogether, and the feedback is the crucial element.

In his book "A Symphony in the Brain" journalist Jim Robbins gives an interesting overview of the history of the field. We get a lot of background on the key players (and their in-fighting) in the development of neurofeedback, in both the scientific and commercial arenas. There are also several fascinating case-studies within the book, including that of Jay Ritchie, who suffered anoxia-related brain damage after an accident at work. From then on Jay appeared semi-comatose. He was wheelchair-bound and not responsive to normal stimuli. The version of events in the book contends that Jay was, after being hooked up to neurofeedback equipment, found to be trapped in a theta-dominant brain state. The feedback allowed him to learn to move from this slow-wave state back into conscious alpha and beta frequencies, thereby allowing him to "wake up" and begin to communicate again.

This is an extraordinary claim and so it, and other claims like it (and there are many), requires extraordinary evidence. Jim Robbins admits in his book that large scale, peer-reviewed, controlled scientific studies are thin on the ground. He contends that the "California hippie" reputation of neurofeedback has hobbled its ability to achieve the required funding for such studies. He is probably right about that. The 60s/70s idea of transcendence via meditation left a bad taste in the mouths of the scientific establishment, who largely saw it as nothing more than neo-spiritualist self-indulgence.

But, given what we now know about the brain and its staggering plasticity, can the establishment really continue to ignore technologies that can claim to alleviate serious conditions in a totally non-invasive way? I don't want to make this sound like neuro and biofeedback are seen by all scientists as being on the fringes. There are now many serious medically-trained neurofeedback practitioners around the world treating conditions from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The field is now strong and growing: some claim that it won't be long before we have the equipment in our homes.

I have to be wary of the way in which I am drawn to this idea. It seems like common sense to me, but I am also aware that many commonsense notions are quite wrong. Some of my other blog entries (e.g. Toolbox) have touched on similar ideas and I am quite comfortable with the thought that I am not just a "passenger" in my body. Or in my brain. What could that mean anyway? To be servants to the frequency-modulated whims of our own brains? We are our own brains and learning to recognise and modulate our own brain waves seems the sensible, healthy and responsible thing to do.

The drug companies do not like this idea. "Big pharma" has a huge and obvious vested interest in the neurochemical route to wellbeing. The irony is that neurofeedback is also a neurochemical route. It's just that the chemical change/altered bloodflow/neuronal re-organisation is being stimulated via self-actuated brainwave stimulation.

The potential medical uses of neurofeeback are broad. But this kind of technology will probably impact on other areas of our lives first. Computer gaming is an obvious one. Indeed the concept of using interactive games to stimulate brain frequency change has been around in neurofeedback for many years. Steering an avatar around a virtual landscape by the power of thought is an entertaining prospect. You might be surprised at how many gamers have already tried it.

Personally, I see the arrival of affordable neurofeedback as heralding a kind of awakening. I hope it will allow us to learn that we are, to at least some degree, capable of controlling our own brain states. And that we can, in time, become better users of those brains.

05 May 2010

Me and My Big Amygdala?

Controlling our emotional responses can feel like a struggle. We may feel logical and capable, reasonable and calm, before we face a social challenge. But often, when the time comes to use our logic and serenity in dealings with others, we react in an emotional "knee-jerk" manner.

Emotional responses are multifaceted and are not purely the result of one specific brain area. Current theories are based upon a group of interconnected structures near the brain stem known as the limbic system. Within the "layer cake" context of the brain, with evolutionarily "newer" parts stacked above and around "older" parts, the limbic system structures can be seen as an early development.

The amygdala (or more correctly amygdalae: one in each hemisphere) is part of this conceptual limbic system and it plays a role in many of our responses to different types of social interaction. For example, it is involved in our recognition of and reaction to sexual stimuli (direct or indirect); it interacts with the hippocampus in the process of forming emotional memories; it is involved in fear responses and also in "predatory" and "affective" aggression.

Affective aggression is "display" behaviour, such as making warning noises and adopting defensive postures e.g. when a cat hisses and arches its back in the presence of a dog. Humans often display affective aggression, although not usually in the form of hissing and arching. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is involved in this behaviour; bringing about and contributing to a host of "symptoms" over which we may feel we have no control. Examples of this are blushing; racing heartbeat; dry mouth; shaking; sweating.

There is some evidence that a human amygdalectomy (destroying all or part of the amygdala by electrical or chemical surgery) can reduce aggressive behaviour. But this type of psychosurgery would nowadays be considered a drastic procedure of last resort.

I am speculating here but it appears to me that "blurting" responses often come about in extremely quick succession to the SNS responses. We sometimes seem to respond harshly to a challenge to our "authority" or "self-image", perhaps with shouting or expletives, before we have a chance to "think through" our response. I know a few people who think that's a good thing: "Get it off your chest"; "It's better out in the open". But, more often than not, it isn't for the best. Humans have a highly-developed neocortex. If we respond harshly, before taking the time to fully process the information through that "new" structure, we may regret our initial emotion-laden response.

This may all seem to imply that having a bigger amygdala would make you more prone to aggressive behaviour; and that men must have larger ones than women. In fact, women have larger amygdalas than men: some ten percent larger. The amygdalas of gay men can be around twenty percent larger.

This appears contradictory until you think of the amygdala in terms of a seat of "emotional intelligence". The amygdala has a strong role in the recognition of the emotional responses of others. This could mean an aggressive emotional feedback loop but instead it often means an empathetic feedback loop. You recognise the emotional response of another human to your cues: your expression, your tone etc; and you respond appropriately to those cues, creating a positive "loop". It's a kind of "mirroring" behaviour. Women and gay men are particularly well-adapted to it.

So, positive social interaction with other humans isn't simply a matter of thinking everything through before expressing an opinion. Certainly it requires logic and tact, but it also requires emotional intelligence; and that requires the timely involvement of the amygdala.

19 April 2010

The Brain of Richard Feynman

I've been interested in the life and work of Richard Feynman for some time. I've read some of the collections of lectures, such as "Six Easy Pieces" and also the collection of reminiscences "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!". I don't purport to understand a great deal of the Physics in the lectures, except on a superficial level. I know that I would need to get a decent grasp on mathematics if I really wanted to go there. Maybe one day.

Feynman was a fascinating character. A physicist with a supreme disregard for uniforms and honours, despite his sharing in the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED). He was a handy (sic) bongo player with a sharp sense of humour and a deep love of finding out how things work. He understood that he may not find the answers he sought but the joy of trying drove him on. He had a darker side too. His involvement in the Manhattan Project haunted him later in his life, as must have the death of his first wife.

There is a huge amount of information available about Mr Feynman, and his books are wonderful, so I won't go into his life or work in any more detail here. What fascinates me, personally, about Richard Feynman is the way that he looked at the world. I really wonder if that way of seeing things is accessible to all of us or just to a select few. Was his brain wired so differently that most of us cannot hope to understand his viewpoint?

The part of it I do truly understand is the hardwired loathing of uniforms and honours. The detestation of the elevation to virtual godhood of other humans when they are, in reality, no better or no worse than ourselves. This feeling - the "I can't stand it!" reaction Feynman talks about in one of his TV interviews, comes through the simple application of logic to our real circumstances. We are smart apes with big brains. Feynman didn't "hate" the Pope but he detested the "idea" of people like the Pope, with their ridiculous uniforms and rotten dogmas.

Also, surely, we are all capable of grasping the constantly-questioning aspect of a brain like Feynman's. We are born inquisitive. We just need to keep that into adulthood, and forego the arrogance of assuming that we know much at all about the world. That way we would keep experimenting (often failing) and continue to feel the joy of discovery throughout our lives. This isn't idealistic. It's the only way to grow.

Is there a particular kind of structure to a human brain; a particular configuration of neurons it must have to allow it to think in the "Feynman mode"? I don't think so. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal how plastic the brain actually is. Maybe the very act of keeping that particular kind of inquisitive aspect of our personalities to the fore would change us; not into Richard Feynmans but certainly into better humans with more humility and more capability to deal with constant uncertainty. Uncertainty is natural, fixedness is not. Look at the structure of an atom.

Much as I am interested in him and his "curious" attitude to everything, I know there's no place for a "Cult of Feynman". He would have hated that. It sounds too much like something you might need a uniform for.

24 March 2010

The Science of Happiness

It may not immediately sound like a subject worthy of rigorous scientific study, but who wouldn't want a clear-cut, scientific explanation of how to be happy?

Perhaps we think we already know what makes us happy and that we don't need neuroscientists, economists and psychologists delving into such nebulous subjects to reach conclusions that are based on entirely subjective information. But the state of mental contentment we dub "happiness" is a psychological state like any other, and must involve certain neurochemical patterns and other markers which make it an observable and measurable phenomenon.

We do not even need to resort to MRI or other brain-scanning techniques in order to study happiness scientifically. We accept the findings of empirical studies in many other fields of scientific research but perhaps we feel, innately, that "our" happiness is special and somehow different from the kind of "general purpose" happiness that studies might throw up.

In his scintillating book "Stumbling on Happiness" psychologist Daniel Gilbert covers, in great and highly-entertaining depth, the repeated "errors" we make in the daily process of trying to gain happiness, both in the present and for the consumption of our "future selves". It is a curious and exclusively human trait to suffer relative "pain" now in order to achieve happiness ("gain") for a person that we do not yet even know (our future self). Gilbert goes into some of the fascinating neuroscience behind this "prospection " or "nexting" behaviour. He contends that humans engage in a mental process of "making future" that is very different from superficially similar processes observed in other creatures.

I've written in the past about "psychological continuity" and this, I think, is an example of the way in which we unquestioningly see ourselves on a continuum from childhood to old age as the "same" entity, despite all the physical and psychological evidence to the contrary. The resulting conclusion could be paraphrased as: "why wouldn't I wish to make provision for that future entity when we are one and the same?"

Gilbert discusses the role of the brain's frontal lobe in "nexting" behaviour and gives us the grisly example of Phineas Gage who, after having a steel tamping rod blasted through his skull and into his frontal lobe, underwent a complete character transformation and began to behave in ways that indicated that he had lost all regard for the future consequences of his present actions.

One of the ideas in Gilbert's book that most struck me was that of a "psychological immune system" that we all possess, to protect us from life's various knocks and traumas. This set of thought-pattern readjustments eventually kicks in, some time after the initial stimulus, in order to allow us to regain (and maintain) a consistent and reasonably positive self-image. This, to me, certainly makes evolutionary sense - a human with a volatile and decaying self-image may make a poor mate, indeed he may seldom feel confident enough to mate. But Dan Gilbert is not attempting to make an evolutionary point here - he is simply pointing out that consistency of self-image is important in order to allow us to function in society.

This ties in, somewhat, with a phrase I once heard: "everyone is the hero of their own story". I don't normally pay much attention to this type of cod-psychology but the more I thought about this phrase the more it appealed. One can, of course, take this point to the extreme. A mass-murderer can be the hero of his own story. This is neither inconceivable, nor inconsistent with the idea of a psychological immune system. The mass murderer must also experience a "reckoning" within his own psyche and, albeit subconsciously, find a way to reconcile the disparate parts of his personality into one consistent self-image. He can be happy too.

So what do mass-murders and tamping irons through the brain have to do with happiness? Well, understanding the neuroscience and psychology of ideas like prospection and self-image-consistency could be a novel route to understanding why we keep getting the "technique" of happiness so horribly wrong. For example, errors of prospection can lead us to feel less, not more, happy because we are brooding on a future over which we may actually have very little control. Scientific studies in this field demonstrate that control is key. People need to feel that they have "agency" over their own path to the future; that they are making decisions which are positively influencing the outcomes, not just floundering in a sea of randomness. This may be self-delusion but it is delusion that appears to have positive effects.

We also make errors in our attempts to estimate how bad we think future calamities will make us feel. For example, if you ask a volunteer in a study how she will feel if she loses her job in the next six months, the chances are that she will give quite a high rating on a scale of how much distress she estimates that would cause her. If you speak to the volunteer again in a year's time, upon finding out that she did in fact lose her job, you will likely find that she rates the distress of the actual event lower than her original estimate. Studies of this type lend weight to the idea that, despite all the personal evidence available to us, we seldom realise that we will be able to quickly readjust to new circumstances and find new reasons for optimism and happiness. This "readjustment" process even applies to dire circumstances, such as permanent disability or the death of a loved one.

Is science any closer to being able to tell us how to be happy? If we choose to pay attention to the evidence we will at least see that many of the behaviours and thought processes we engage in actually detract from our contentment. If we begin to behave in ways that systematically attempt to mitigate the "errors" then, perhaps, we can find a path that contributes to our daily sense of well-being.

There are certainly worse experiments you could do on yourself.

05 March 2010


How much data do you have to deal with? How much do you carry with you on a daily basis? Is it logical? Is it encrypted? Is it necessary? How do you perceive that 'weight' of data? What is your relationship with it?

You probably haven't asked yourself any of these questions, but my work has put me into the role of 'data controller', so I feel a personal responsibility to maintain the integrity of some terabytes of data. This can be a logistical problem, and it's an issue that we will all increasingly have to deal with.

I once lost some valuable data. I had written some songs and stored them on the hard drive of my PC. I didn't keep backups at that time. My modem was blown out by a lightning pulse and it damaged other components, including the hard drive. A friend eventually managed to retrieve some of the songs for me, but I will not forget the initial sickening realisation that I had not taken steps to protect what had taken me so long to create. I learned to keep backups.

Terabyte drives are now common but, surprisingly, that's probably not enough backup space even for the average small business. Bloated software has led to bloated file sizes; the availability of large amounts of storage space means that workers don't run up against data storage problems on a regular basis, so they continue to create massive graphical files; people dump their mp3 collections to office file servers; incremental backups going back weeks eat up further space. Little or nothing will be done about these issues. Data storage will continue to grow in capacity and transfer speeds will increase. None of this will matter.

Many of us now carry large amounts of data around with us. Think about how it mounts up. The pen drive; the SD card in the camera; the hard drive in the ipod; the mini-SD in the mobile phone. This could easily amount to 70GB or more of capacity, without even taking netbooks or laptops into account, although most of us only use a fraction of that available capacity to store all our data. How important is all that data to us and how would we feel if we lost vital parts of it? It's OK to admit that you would feel a great deal of emotional trauma in such a situation. You have collected it, created it, improved it. This data is part of your life. It is part of you, externalised.

Corporations now move and store vast amounts of data. Wal-Mart, for example, handles more than one million customer transactions every hour and keeps databases estimated at more than 2.5 petabytes in size. They obviously value their data about us. Perhaps we should value our own data a little more. It is easy and cheap to get the storage space but managing it and backing it up in a regular and logical manner requires a bit of effort. There's definitely room in the market for powerful, but more user-friendly file management and backup software.

The subject of data storage may seem mundane but not if seen in a wider context. Everything is made of information. We are entities that use our intelligence to create a constant stream of new data. Much of it is junk and noise but there is also much beauty. We create beautiful patterns in language, music, mathematics, art. We retrieve data streams back from our spacecraft about the conditions on other planets. We send data about ourselves out into space, that other patternists may some day find and understand it. It is a hopeful enterprise and one that, if we chose to see it, can hold meaning for us.

To use the processing power of stars and fill the universe with intricate patterns of data. My pen drive and I, onward to new frontiers.

03 February 2010

Entropic Footprints and Personalities

Some people seem to assist entropy more than others.

Chaos abounds in the systems of our world, both natural and man-made. We know that entropy can be construed as a measure of the "disorder" within a given "closed" system. In thermodynamics it is a a physical fact. But is it reasonable to say that some individuals (or groups) "assist" in the growth of entropy within our effectively closed system(s). And, if so, should they be held to account (or just taxed) for this.

This may seem like a far-fetched notion but, until recently, we would all have scoffed at the idea of a personal "carbon footprint". What about one's "entropic footprint"? Of course this would be impossible to measure accurately but that should not prevent us from widening the concept of an individual's "detrimental impact" on a given system to cover as many other harmful aspects as possible.

Some immediate physical aspects of an "entropic footprint" should be readily measurable. The fact that we have found ways to measure a carbon footprint demonstrates this. We have taken an evidence-based principle - that man's modern activities lead to an increased release of CO2 into the atmosphere, causing an increase in global temperature - and developed from it a measurement of an individual's contribution to this phenomenon. How, though, do I measure say my "mercury footprint"? How my "hexavalent chromium" footprint? And do these "footprints" attach to me directly or to the original producer of the substance, or a bit of both in some complex ratio?

What about those who lead chaotic, shambolic lives? "Chaotic" in this sense is often loosely used but it may be more accurate than it first appears. We all know individuals who can't seem to get organised. They are often late; always losing their keys; their homes are disordered or even run-down; they fail to take notes of important events; they lose vital paperwork. But how often do we think about how that "chaotic" lifestyle feeds into the lives of others? There is, of course, a direct impact on those they live with. Perhaps the partner is conscious of the problem but struggles to keep up with its growth. He worries about it and has difficulty organising his own life under the circumstances. There is also a direct impact on those they work with - the repercussions may be "shallower" (at least at first) but also much broader in this context.

Their is a psychological "cost" to living or working within the sphere of influence of such behaviour. It could be argued that this "cost" has a progressive, "entropic" quality. The effect is increasingly wearing. In some situations the effect is so intense, and grows so quickly, that the system of family or work cannot hold together for long. In others is takes much more time, as the less "entropic" try repeatedly to mitigate the negative impacts of their "chaotic" family-member(s) or colleague(s). Some can feel trapped but manage to escape the dysfunctional system, others never do. Psychological effects are physical - does anyone have the right to affect your brain chemistry? Your sleeping patterns? Your rate of ageing?

Disorder within socio-economic systems will tend to grow, despite the best efforts of some individuals and groups to rein this in. But the lack of willingness to try, as an individual, to mitigate the effects of "social entropy", through reasonable efficiency but also (importantly) through empathy, could be fairly seen as costly behaviour. Who currently pays this cost?

So what of the total "entropic footprint" for an individual? Perhaps more fairly called an "entropic-rate footprint". We can't measure such a thing at present, and the very nature of entropy means that we probably never could have an accurate measure. But if we accept, as we now apparently do, that individual detrimental impacts on a system can be measured and taxed, then we must accept that there are a myriad measures exist and a myriad ways to measure them.

12 January 2010

Confessions of a Justified Brain-freezer

And so to cryonics.

I have posted about this before but now I think I am ready expand on that. Cryonics is emotive because it is to do with death and all things to do with death are emotive. Death-denial is perhaps the greatest (and most important) psychological game we play with ourselves throughout our short lives.

Once you get past religion (unless you wish to fool yourself) you are faced with the prospect of your own eventual non-existence in all its cold-gleaming, gut-wrenching starkness. Allow yourself to feel it for a while and then stop. Because there is nowhere to go. You can't rationalise it because there is no rationale to death for sentient beings like us. Your brain will cease to function and some well-meaning (but ultimately complicit) loved-one will put the remains of your unique molecular structure into the ground to rot, or burn them to ashes in a purpose-built oven.

Getting past religion (which happened to me around age 5) and much later discovering something of my physical composition, is not enough. The realisation that death is the end, is not the end of the realisation. Why be in such a hurry for your full-stop? Everything is made of atoms. When you die your body does not immediately fall into a heap of stinking slurry. You have a structure and there is some time available to store the most important part of that structure - your brain. You are your structure - your emotions, your memories, your personality - is all made of atomic structures. Why denegrate those who chose not to have it summarily burnt to ashes?

The more I think about this the more I feel that humanity is making a terrible mistake in the way it deals with death. How often have you heard "it's about those that are left behind"? No. Your death is about you. Granted, you are going to cause them some inconvenience in their time of greatest distress, by insisting that your remains be treated differently when you die. But those you leave behind will still exist as sentient beings in the universe, you will not. If they don't understand what that means then they still have the luxury of time to learn.

What we need are practical measures. Organ donation is now a well-established practice. We treat donated hearts and kidneys with the utmost respect. What about brains? You can't transplant them but does that imply that they should just be left to turn to soup? Why not cool all dead bodies, where possible? This could be implemented in hospitals. There would be a cool-room where all dead bodies would be taken. The cooling would help to delay the degradation of all organs, making more of them available and viable for transplantation. Those seeking cryonic preservation (neuropreservation) of their heads (and bodies if necessary) could be readily catered for. Organisations such as Alcor could collect from the hospitals and put the heads into long-term liquid nitrogen storage.

The above may sound unpalatable to you but what do you care? You will be dead. Does this process lack dignity? What could one possibly mean by that? How about some dignity of structure? Some respect for beautiful cellular architecture?

But this costs money, right? It is expensive because it is a relatively new idea and novelty costs money. Even now cryonics is not prohibitively expensive and it is likely that the price will come down rapidly as more people request it. Remember that when cryonics first appeared in the 1960s most people still had no idea that the entirety of their "self" was composed of physical structures within their brains. We now know this to be true and more people will realise it over time, so it is logical to assume that more and more people will choose cryonics as a result of this.

Do I expect to be 'woken up' from death at some point? No, of course I don't expect it. The chances of it happening are infinitesimally small. But those of us who are used to reading about science and technology quickly develop an ability to 'project forward'. We are cynical about bad science, and bad reporting of science, but also optimistic about the possibilities. We can look at the endless possibilities in terms of probabilities. Is it probable that future civilisations will consider death to be an inconvenience? Is it probable that they will try to do something about it? Is it probable that they would be interested that others before them had tried to do something about it? Is it probable that they might be interested in using their advanced medical knowledge to tinker around with some vitrified heads in canisters in Arizona? Is it probable that, at some point, they might succeed in reviving one? The probabilities get smaller the further down this line of reasoning you go, but they never reach zero.

My thought processes simply don't allow me to think of death in the way that I used to. That will be uncomfortable for some people. I'm not interested in 'moral' arguments against cryonics, as I have never heard one with any substance. I am interested in the scientific arguments, as they are healthy and useful. The distaste for cryonics within religious circles is obvious and to be expected. That is satisfying to know. But, for those of us able to think clearly about death there is no excuse for summarily dismissing the idea.

I have never met anyone who truly accepts the notion of their own eventual death. I have met plenty of people who just shut the subject down, or dismiss it as inevitable and unchangeable.

That is probably true. But only probably.