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Sep. 25th, 2006

wearing my other hat

I had an article published in the Australian newspaper today.

It's about current US strategy in the Middle East.

If anyone wants to discuss it with me they might want to go to the forum on the web site that I manage ( the site is called lastsuperpower ).

Or else if you have a real aversion to going there (something to do with it being a site run by aging communists and anti green???) I'd be interested in reading comments here.

But I'd really like to see someone like Dr Bunsen have a go at us on lastsuperpower!!!!

Sep. 18th, 2006

keeping up when ur middle-aged

The other morning when I first got up my computer was sort of gurgling (not quite the word for it - actually it was higher pitched than a gurgle - closer to a hacking, scraping whine). I got the normal panicky feeling that you get when you think you might have a sick computer and have to spend the day off line nurturing it in some way (it's pretty much the same as when you have something vitally important to do and one of your kids wakes up with a temperature). Since the computer in "the big room" is currently without a motherboard (poor thing) I felt even more disturbed .

I knew it would have to be a fan cos it wasn't a dying HD noise which is softer and more clicky/grindy. It seemed most likely to be the motherboard fan so I shut down, took out the m.board fan, oiled it, put it back in, restarted (being careul to protect m.board and other components from any drops of flying oil) and after an initial whine, the noise disappeared! That was a good start to my day, I actually felt happy for a while - sort of empowered, even a bit grandiose. "yay, I'm the computer fixit lady!"

You see the thing is that I am actually a middle aged lady (its hard to write that**) . When I first got my computer it was all enclosed in its box and I used to yell for help whenever I/it had a problem. Now it sits on my desk with the box unscrewed, a second HD sort of hanging out the side - and I know a little bit about its innards. That's a big change from the days when it all seemed an inpenetrable mystery and my eyes would just glaze over when I heard words like RAM and Mb and CPU . Nowadays I can even use a crimping tool to make my own network cables ...that was a real buzz at first.

Not that I really know a lot. I have Lollipop, Astro and his mate A.Fray, to thank for most of what I do know. Lollipop is a whiz with the screwdriver, knows how to follow 'structions (she has been able to follow 'structions since age 3) and has absorbed a helluva a lot about all sorts of things. Once she let me be her apprentice while she turned an old PC into a very clever router. We spent almost a whole night doing amazing things with network cards and bits of cable, software and 'structions off the internet. It was a delicate operation cos we had limited internet connection and a lot of other problems. Lollipop was endlessly patient and methodical - and gave me a lot of praise for being logical when we were solving problems along the way. I was high as a kite the first time we were able to ping the new riuter ("smoothie") from my computer - and even higher when we were able to tell everyone else in the house "all systems are go! youse can fire up your computers and get on the internet again!!. When we finally retired Smoothie and replaced her with a snazzy little Belkin modem/router I felt quite sad. Smoothie was very special....

Astro just takes things apart and doesn't really follow 'structions. He has developed trial-and-error into a sort of art form. There's nothing especially patient and methodical about him, he just does things and they quite often work. But they don't always work - eg when he took a soldering iron to his playstation. His computer has had a lot of deaths and is full of cigarette buts. A Fray recently had to give him a new CPU cos it had got "hot enuff to fry and egg on", due I suspect to overclocking. But there's something to be said for a bit of risk taking and trial and error. Those boyz have the attitude that they can "do stuff" and that approach seems to lead to a lot of learning and confidence.

The other day foxtel came and upgraded us to their digital service (with "IQ"). They are shutting down their analogue service so were forced to give us the upgrade free of charge! Anyway it's all different from our old set-up with about a million new options. Astro and da boyz were swooning with excitement and had explored the whole system within about 10 minutes (once again no use of the shiny 100 page 'struction manual). That sort of trial and error stuff doesn't come so naturally to me and I am still calling out "Astro, help me! Where's channel 2???" . Last night I couldn't get anyting to work. I yelled for Astro and said "the whole screen's blank!" . He said "have you turned the TV on?". I said "yes" (well I had pressed the "on" switch on the TV). He looked at me with the "DUH!" look (which all mothers know very well), reached for one of the 25 (mostly useless) remotes littering the table, deftly squeezed a loose battery into position, pressed something on it and Hey Presto, the TV sprang into life. As he turned to leave, I said "but what did you do?" His reply "I pressed a button..". So there you go, I still get helpless and call for help. But I think I'm improving.

** I found out for sure that I was middle-aged on a police report. I had to take Astro and A Fray to the cop shop one day ( afew years ago) and when the police wrote up their brief about the matter I saw it in black and white! They described the boyz as having been "brought in by a middle aged woman" . Note: I only took them in to avoid them being taken there in the back of a paddy wagon. It seemed a nicer way to do it

Sep. 16th, 2006

bugs and goblins!

Spent a good part of the day fighting off spammers on the website that I run Seem to have defeated them for now. I just got the Shakespearian Insulter to generate a few insults to sum up how it feel about them /it.

Such bugs and goblins in my life!

[Thou] shall stand in fire up to the navel and in ice up to th'heart, and there th'offending part burns and the deceiving part freezes.

Show your sheep-biting face, and be hanged an hour!

[Thou art] pigeon-liver'd and lack gall

Thou spongy folly-fallen malt-worm!

Thou puking earth-vexing malcontent!

Thou artless boil-brained maggot-pie!

Thou vain rude-growing canker-blossom!

[Thou] appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.

Now cheering myself up listening to the canon rock on youtube. It's been around since December last year - has been now been viewed over 8 million times (I love it). Wot you can now do with the internet and a video cam!

Sep. 15th, 2006

finishing off chapter 2

This is just the last part of my notes on Chapter 2 of Freedom Evolves by daniel Dennett


In order to break the yoke between the determinism and inevitability Dennett argues that we need a concept of >i> avoidance </i> which can be applied "liberally to events in the history of the earth whether or not that history is determined".

(note: I think people tend to get a bit stuck on this because the sort of avoidance Dennett has talked of in the various Life worlds is so very clearly completely mindless from the perspective of the entities "doing" the avoiding. But I'll leave this for now.)

Living in an indeterministic word wouldn't help at all.

Some people think that somehow indetermism might give us freedom. But as Dennett points out, living in a world in which events were random would give us no chance of being free. How free could we be in an entirely unpredictable universe. That seems obvious to me so I won't go on about it....

This is pretty much the end of chapter 2 and I'll just put in a final quote from Dennett to conclude it:

I agree that we are still a long way from free will. There is nothing that looks remotely like freedom at the level of the physics of the Life world . Gliders and eat ers aren't the slightest bit free, and what they do is what they have to do, every time. It seems to stand to reason that nothing composed of such unfree parts could have any more freedom, that the whole cannot be any freer than its parts , but this hunch, which is the very backbone of resistance to determinism, will turn out on closer examination, to be an illusion

With regard to the comments from "anonymous" at the end of my last blog entry:

Yes I understand that the whole question of free-will has been dealt with by others befeore Dennett.

I also agree that simple "avoiders" have the intentionality of a thermostat and aren't free.

I will buy the book by Tim O'Keefe (on Epicurus and free will) and read it.

All I'm doing here is writing up some personal notes on Dennett's book on my blog instead of in a notebook.

Sep. 10th, 2006

indoctrination on the starship 2

Sometimes the kids stayed in their boxes.... (a serious of clicks will enlarge)


inevitable , determined, avoided .... how we wield these words

Continuing on with my notes about Chapter 2 of dennett's book "Freedom Evolves"... I'm basically just writing this stuff up in order to better understand it myself. I often read books and take copious notes (which I never look at again). I thought it might be useful (and a different experience for me ) to try doing it as part of a blog this time. I'm not trying to write something particularly "good" - just to get something down really.


According to Dennett, what toy worlds like the Game of Life can demonstrate is that even in a simple and self-evidently deterministic world "all the necessary ingredients exist for he evolution of....avoiders !. And this is what we need to break "the cognitive illusion that yokes determinism with inevitability".

At this point he reviews the very early development of life in the real world referring to the "incessantly exploratory process of natural selection" , its use of more or less exhaustive "search" leading to structures that could react (in very simple ways) to things that encroached upon them and threatened their survival. A very slow process happening at a snail's pace over millions of generations and involving effectively an arms race of moves and counter moves between different living organisms to develop better (and better) ways of counteracting threat. Nothing conscious and deliberate here but nevertheless it makes real sense to talk of this as a trial and error process of "noticing a problem" and "figuring out" a solution.

We humans are an outcome of that process and the first creatures to have the capacity to foresee problems before they hit us. Whereas natural selection operates with absolutely no foresight (only what we can call a sort of 'hindsight") it has "invented" creatures with foresight - the evolutionary process has reached a stage 'where exploration within the lifetime of an individual organisms can effect the underlying slow process of genetic evolution and even, in some circumstances, usurp it".

We can see and hear things at a distance and don't have to wait until they sidle up on us - we even have prosthetic extensions of our sense organs and can "solve problems at a tempo approaching the maximum speed limit of the physical universe: the speed of light".

There are some inevitabilites but we are rapidly reducing them. Things we could previously do nithing about are now things we can counter because we can (a) predict them and (b) understand them.

Here we get more into the philosophcal argument

How can we be free in a deterministic world?

Dennett argues that we neeed to look more closely at the meaning of the word "inevitable" What it really means is "unavoidable", . Something which can be avoided is not (was not) inevitable, even in a deterministic world. Natural selection has (obviously) favoured creatures that can somehow avoid harm.

Here's how he outlines his explicit argument:

In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harm
Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided.
Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable ( evitable is the opposite of inevitable...KC)
Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable.
Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability.

He says that many people will find this argument "fishy" because it exposes "hidden assumptions about avoiding and inevitability that have gone largely unnoticed".

Most people intuitvely tend to think that in a determined world whatever occurs is the the inevitable outcome of the complete set of causes leading up to it.

But what does this actually mean?

Are we correct to persist in using the words "inevitable" and "determined" as synonyms? Does the word "inevitable" convey anything in addition to the word "determined"?

It can be argued (correctly) that in the Life Worlds the configurations which successfully avoid being harmed by other encroaching configurations are able to do this only because their designer determined that they would do this. if you rerun a particular Life world from teh same starting point a million times each confguration will "do" exactly the same thing. "those that survive survive and those that don't don't, and that's all determined from the outset".

But, Dennett asks, why assume that "determined avoidance isn't real avoidance"???

A typical response to this assertion is that "real avoidance involves changing something that was going to happen into something that doesn't happen".

Here Dennett compares the blink reflex (involuntary and often triggered unnecessarily), with our ability to dodge something like a baseball. In the case of the latter we can, under certain circumstances choose to take the hit rather than dodge it. If someone successfully dodges a baseball was it ever "going to" hit him/her? In that scenario we could say that it was "never really going to" hit the person because it caused their avoidance system to go into action. But if a person decided to take the hit (perhaps because winning a game depends upon it) that person would be avoiding avoidance because they were able to factor in other things - an example of the open-ended human ability based on foresight (as opposed to a completely reflexive response like a blink).

The intuitive response to this is that all the same, no matter how complex and apparently open-ended, the behaviour in such a case still doesn't count as "genuine avoidance" because genuine avoidance involves changing the outcome. Someone may think they "decided" not to dodge a baseball but in really that was always going to happen - because it was determined (caused by all the prior events leading up to it).

This type of argument according to Dennett is incoherent. When we talk of "changing an outcome" it makes no sense unless what we mean is changing the anticipated outcome. "The real outcome, the actual outcome is whatever happens, and nothing can change that in a determined world - or even an undetermined world!"

stopping now - will continue with the last part of chapter 2 when I get a chance....

Did Astro dodge the can???? (a series of clicks will enlarge the image)


Sep. 9th, 2006

Moomlyn and Astro being indoctrinated on the starship

Just taking a break from Dennett and messing around with an old photo of Moomlyn and Astro that I found. Mainly an experiment. If you click on it a few (3) times it seems to enlarge nicely (for me anyway...). actually you can make it HUGE if you persist. ...

I have been studying it for signs of emerging free will. A lot more going on when you try to be a hacker god in the real world.


Sep. 8th, 2006

simulation too quiet

This seems to relate to the idea that "the universe is its own best simulator"

Comment number 1 to what I wrote yesterday is worth a response but I need to read all the links and think about them first. So I'll defer responding in any detail to most of it for now.

On the question of "the situatedness of evolutionary processes in reality" Dennett seems to take a similar view arguing that there's not enough "noise" in Conway's game of life (or any other "toy universe") for life to evolve all by itself. Life in Conway's world requires a conscious designer whereas life on planet Earth doesn't. What we learn from the game of life is to do with the fundamental idea that very simple "building blocks" can produce entities that appear to be "more than their parts". The basic idea of emergence is directly demonstrated in the Game of Life and no longer appears magical and mysterious.

As far as eliminating "the hacker gods" from the Game of Life is concerned Dennett is deeply sceptical.

Virtual worlds are too clean and perfect. They don't have any (supposedly) non-functional (messy) features. Dennett writes:

All these non-functional features come for free in the real, concrete world - and they play a critical role in evolution. The open endedness of evolution by natural selection depends on the extraordinary richness of the real world, which constantly provides new undesigned elements that can be serendipitously harnessed, once in a blue moon, into new design elements. To take the simplest case. can there be enough interference in the world to produce an appropriate number of mutations without, in the process, simply breaking the whole reproductive system? The reproductive system of Conway's universal Turing Machine was noise-free, making perfect copies every time. There was no provision for mutation at all, no matter how many copies of itself it produced. Could a still larger, more ambitious self replicating automaton be designed that could allow for the occasional unblocked glider to arrive, like a cosmic ray, and produce a mutation in the genetic code being copied? can a two-dimensional Life world be noisy enough to support open-ended evolution, while still quiet enough to permit the designer parts to do their good unassailed? Nobody knows.

Sep. 7th, 2006

whose reasons?

In discussing the various Life worlds Dennet calls the people who build and play with them them "hacker gods" and points out that it is these gods who bestow what looks like "foresight" and "reason" on the denizens of their worlds. The unmentioned parallel here is with what he has referred to elsewhere as the "free floating rationale" of natural selection. Before there were "real reasons" (ie creatures who could generate their own reasons/thoughts) there was the emergent rationality evident in the blind design process of natural selection. The obvious difference of course is that the people who design the various life worlds - the hacker gods - are conscious of what they do (which is why he calls them "gods") whereas "mother nature" has always been blind.

But I'll leave this for now....

The truth is that the life-world creatures only appear to know anything. Yes they can avoid being destroyed by events in their environment but we can't say that they actually choose to do this. Their reasons are not their own - they are the reasons of their creators. Where this is leading is something that people tend to feel confused about when they first come across it. It requires a bit of patience and endurance to stick with and follow Dennett's argument at the beginning. What he is on about gets clearer with perserverence and its worth it in the end.

This quote is useful:

If we ask "at what point" the designer's reasons become the designed agent's reasons, we may find that there is a seamless blend of intermediate steps, with more and more of the design work off-loaded from the designer to designed agent. One of the beauties of the intentional stance is that it allows us to see clearly this shift in the distribution of "cognitive labor" between the originating design process and the efforts of the thing designed" (Here he's referring to natural selection in general rather than to the Life worlds designed according to Conway's rules)

Dilbert on free will (click to enlarge)


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