Now and Then

So I’m reading physicist Brian Greene’s new book, “Till the End of Time”, and in it he references Michael Graziano’s schema-based theory of consciousness, under a nicely succinct subheading “The Mind Modeling The Mind”. The theory is, basically, when a conscious mind is contemplating an object (in Greene’s example, a Ferrari), it creates a simplified model of that object and its attributes, but furthermore, it creates a model of a conscious mind paying attention to that object. This model of the mind is what give us the feeling of being conscious.

That made me think (and I’m trying to remember if it was discussed in Graziano’s book) that the defining characteristic of being conscious is the temporal concept of “now”. That is to say, a subjective (to me, myself, and I) moment in time that moves through a narrative, a story of what’s happening right now to that model of myself paying attention to something. It’s this concept of “now” that can then process any “then” (not now) – in other words, the past and the future. The now, the conscious present, can dive into the data of the recorded past (in my brain) to project a simulation of the future.

Sounds exhausting. That’s probably why we need to sleep, or lose consciousness, periodically, during which we lose all concept of now (unless we are consciously dreaming). Our brains clearly need rest from this exhausting effort of modeling our current moment in time, all the time.


What Will Elon Do?

Here I am starting a series where I predict things.

Like, I claim to have predicted the iPhone in a technical journal article in the year 2000. And, to myself, I claim to have thought of Shopify in 2008, when I started a similar company of small online shops and amassed dozens, yes DOZENS, of sellers paying me 30 bucks a month.

So why not record more of these thoughts on my blog so I can check myself, later?

Here’s a prediction about Elon Musk that I haven’t seen others think of: he’s totally planning to introduce crypto micro and macro transactions to Twitter, as a subscription and transaction and “Patreon” model. He’s just been so obsessed with Crypto and it won’t go away.

Also I think he’ll buy Rivian.

The Helmet Has Spoken.

Between Planets by Robert A. Heinlein

Well this was a disjointed little read. Not thoroughly unenjoyable, but kind of perfunctory in its plot. And indeed, there are 7 eyed dragons from Venus. Why 7? I don’t know.

There are a lot of Heinlein’s usual themes: politics, a dislike of big government, soldiers. The mystery of the “secret message” was kind of weak.

Not his best. 2 Helmets out of 5.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

My hand is a robot hand.

This is a book I read maybe 6 or 7 years ago on my Kindle so I don’t remember much from it. But I have this physical copy of it now, so before I put it away on my bookshelf I want to jot down a few thoughts on it.

It was okay. I remember choosing it after a hard-boiled detective novel phase I was going through, Elmore Leonard, that kind of thing, and this was billed as Isaac Asimov’s attempt at this. The main characters are Lige (Elijah) Baley, and his robot co-detective, R. Daneel. They solve a murder.

The lead in and setup were quite compelling, there was some reason why the two characters were put together, and it worked. I just pass judgement for now until one day I read it again…

I present this book with 3 Helmets out of 5. Huzzah!

Becky Chambers is Getting Awesomer

Becky Chambers is keenly aware of her past shortcomings and challenges herself to become a better and better writer with every new piece. It’s exciting to see her grow as an author and not get caught up in her own amazing success.

The Hugo-award winning author is growing more assured with every outing, and her themes and plots are becoming more mature and sophisticated, and ulitimately, I think and hope, more rewarding.

I was not a huge fan of her blockbuster explosion on the sci-fi scene, with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the beginning of her much-loved Wayfarer series. I was disappointed in the corny space opera themes, the overly quirky characters, and the Star Trek aliens type exposition. But then she took some bold choices with her sequels, abandoning popular characters and changing focus bravely to other perspectives. In her writings and prefaces, I recall her self-deprecating acknowledgement of her weaknesses as a young, part-time writer, and the expressed desire to diverge from tired themes and past success.

Then I read To Be Taught If Fortunate and was impressed by the maturity and the hard sci-fi commitment in this novella. This despite the unfortunate, difficult to remember title.

And now I’ve ready just 3 or 4 pages of one of her latest series, A Psalm for The Wild Built and I’m instantly enthused. Like really enthused. The Monk and Robot themes hold a lot of promise. Let’s see how this goes. I’m rooting for her.

The Godmakers by Frank Herbert

I seem to have a soft spot for science fiction novels with the word “God” in the title. And Frank Herbert’s name has some resonance for me. Although I am not a huge Dune fan, I do admire the novel, and quote weird funny lines from the film every now and again, in conversation. So I gave this a try.

It’s just okay, I guess. There are some Big, Weighty Issues presented, but the way they are tackled is disjointed at times, with some chapters meant to be payoffs turning out to be flops after unwarranted build up. This feels like the sketch of a better book, highly episodic in nature.

Once thing I do like is the disgruntled snarkiness of the protagonist, Lewis Orne, and the combative relationship with his asshole boss, Stetson. Orne acts like a really sulky son-of-a-bitch when he’s first called out and criticized, and to be fair, Stetson really rips into him with ridiculously funny churlishness.

One of the phrases in the book is “Gods are made, not born.” This makes some sense, actually, in the way that religion fashions gods, and in the other way that true “creator of the universe”-type gods ought not to have an origin story. Oh, and in the third way that there are priests literally making gods out of thin air by sitting in a circle and chanting.

The casual sexism is amusing, as a capsule of its time. Our hero encounters not one, but two fiercely female-led societies, one open and the other secret. The first is an authoritarian witch-planet that nearly kills him, and the second is a vast conspiracy of wives bent on manipulating their husbands into positions of power. Cool.

All these episodes culminate in a ordeal, a trial for Orne. It’s sort of a vague cacophony of religious mumbo jumbo that strains to hang all the ideas together, but just treads water attempting to do so.  The final confrontation works pretty well, though, evoking some swelling sense of awe, before the whole thing ends quite perfunctorily.

I did like some of it. 

I give this book a rating of 2.5 Helmets out of 5.



Blogging in the Time of Pandemic

So here we are in the thick of it, sequestered in our homes as COVID-19 spreads silently but surely through our communities. Terms we might remember from this time are “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” and “community spread”. I would imagine I’m not the only person returning to my half forgotten blog.

Another phrase I’ve heard a lot is that old adage “Perfect is the enemy of good”, which Google informs me is attributed to Voltaire. I might just go ahead and bust out a few blog entries without worrying about perfecting them, since they are mostly for me anyway.

Being home for now weeks on end with my wife and 2 year old son has been a blessing. What a wonderful time of his life to be so present in nearly every moment. It makes me also look forward to the day when he can read some of my favourite science fiction, and inspires me to record some of my thoughts on what I’m reading, and what I’ve recently read, in case that interests him at some point. Maybe he’ll discover some of these books in my library, or floating around in my Kindle cloud.

I use “recently” extremely loosely, as some of the most inspiring and affecting books I’ve read have been in these last 5 years or so. This past year I read The Disposessed, and finished the entire Expanse series. And before that The Starmaker blew my mind, and before that The Three-Body Problem series. These influences ought to figure prominently in my ever-germinating novel idea.

So here we go! Let’s do this thing.

Oh why the picture of Spam? I looked for a picture in my roll that suggested Pandemic, and nothing inspires you to buy and consume canned meat like seeing long lines to get into the grocery store.

The Bond

Maybe it takes a female science fiction writer to get it right, but the most compelling, resonating description of what it is like to pair with another person for life is at the end of Chapter 6 of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Disposessed”.

In it, Takver tells Shevek, “I need the bond. The real one. Body and mind and all the years of life. Nothing else. Nothing less.”

The rest of that chapter is achingly good, matter of fact and true.


Simulation and Neural Networks

I was looking up “Science Fiction” in the iOS Podcasts App when I came across this interesting podcast called The Sci Phi Show. The very first episode that caught my attention was an interview with Dr. David Kyle Johnson on The Simulation Hypothesis (which I’ve referred to earlier in this blog as The Simulation Argument).

In the course of this podcast, Dr. Johnson summarized the Simulation Argument by saying that if you believe our civilization will one day be capable of making a computer simulation of the universe, then by inference, there must one day exist many computer simulations of universes (because such simulations would be so darn useful), and the likelihood then that we are currently living in such a computer simulation is many (maybe billions) to one (the true physical universe), or in other words, very likely. It’s an interesting mind flip, of the sort that I imagine philosophers find really appealing. But on the surface at least, I can’t argue with its logic.

However, when questioned about whether we will ever achieve such a simulation, Dr. Johnson scoffed and admitted that we are nowhere close to say, simulating the function of a human brain, let alone building an entire universe for such a brain, or brains, to perceive. A simulation like the game, The Sims, is a far cry from The Matrix in which the subjects are conscious. But wait a second, I thought. Might it not be true that if a civilization, such as ours, becomes capable of making ANY simulation, that a universe replicating simulation MUST one day arise from such a society? And if that were true, that proves the Simulation Argument holds for our existence.

By definition: “Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time. The act of simulating something first requires that a model be developed; this model represents the key characteristics or behaviors/functions of the selected physical or abstract system or process. The model represents the system itself, whereas the simulation represents the operation of the system over time.”

And of course, we have those already. What’s really accelerated our ability to run civilizations is the computer. We can model behaviors with programing language, imbue objects with state and set them into “time”, model randomness in such a system, and see what happens.

Further in the podcast, Dr. Johnson imagines that if we were all in a simulation, then we would all be on some hard drive somewhere, existing. But the computer engineer in me begged to quibble: actually, we’d exist not on a hard drive, but in RAM – active storage that is available to be acted on by events and perceive them at the same time. In other words, conscious.

The thing is, our conventional computers of today will probably never be able to model the human brain. Recent reading I’ve been doing on neural networks suggests that humans are not, in fact, computational beings. Digital computers are exact. Human brains are by necessity inexact. Our brains observe a vast amount of sensory data, analyse this data by associating billions of neurons and synapses with each other in many complex layers of memory, and act (free will) based on this awareness of data. The analysis portion of this chain can only be done in real time with massive parallelism and necessarily inexact correlation and ranking of many layers of previous experience. It’s what we do in an instant every time we understand a sentence, or identify a cat in a picture.

Such a brain could never be simulated by a rudimentary hard drive only capable of storing and fetching data sequentially. Furthermore, the vary notion of a data moving from a hard drive, into RAM, and then waiting to be processed mathematically in a CPU, cannot work to make a neural network. The data and the use of the data would have to exist simultaneously in the same structure. This would probably have to go beyond the general purpose Neural computing instances currently being built and used by Google, although those are worth further investigation to understand how they work. You’d probably have to go to quantum computing for the kind of fuzzy, simultaneously indeterminate math that is needed. Or resort to a physical construction of our biological, cellular brains.

Which is conceivable.