Archive for February, 2011

At Me Too Is Someone Looking?

February 25, 2011


  A recent experiment* suggested that certain sorts of simple movements can improve creative thinking.  Researchers had students squeeze a rubber ball with their right and left hands before taking a test – success on which required “the formation of associative links between otherwise unrelated concepts in order to solve problems in novel ways”.

  Those squeezing the ball with their left hand outperformed both those using their right and those with their hands clutching nothing at all.  Researchers assume that the activity undertaken on the left stimulated the brain’s right hemisphere in which at least part of one’s creative potential is thought to reside.

  I’ve exposited in this space many times in different ways about movement and its importance to cerebral dynamics and physical fitness.  If a few forearm contractions can measurably enhance one’s imagination, think about the benefits of a holistic regimen for a while and then consider the ramifications of a lack thereof.

  OK.  Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start.  In an article in the New Yorker** Rebecca Mead tells us “How tot lots became places to build children’s brains”.  She tells us that an understanding the expenditure of valuable energy in ‘play’ activities begins with the observation that the most intelligent animals all engage in them.

  Ms Mead cites anthropologist Melvin Konner who defines play as “inefficient, partly repetitive movements in varied sequences with no apparent purpose”.  He goes on: “The idea is that natural selection designed play to shape brain development … [it is] directing [one’s own] brain assembly”.

  And ya gotta keep doin’ it.  Most will agree that physical activity is essential for physical health.  It’s essential for your headbone too.  No one will convince me that hours spent moving a mouse or flippin’ IPad pages will supplant squeezing that ball.

  If the only vigorous exercise you get is struggling with footwear at either end of the day you’ll end up like Vladimir in Beckett’s Godot: “We have time to grow old.  The air is full of our cries.  But habit is a great deadener.  At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on”.

* Psychonomic Bulleton & Review 2010, 17 (6), 895-899 Goldstein et al

**State of Play, The New Yorker, July 5, 2010

***cf post 1/24/2008 – “Let’s Dance”

In His Image*

February 18, 2011

  On January 3, 1963 aired an episode of the Twilight Zone that I’ve not forgotten even though I was then not quite eleven years old.  My memory doesn’t always serve up perfection, but generally does well enough to summon up the gist. 

  We meet the chief protagonist, Alan Talbot, early on.  He seems to be going about his life in an average sort of way, but starts getting headaches and memory problems.  Visiting his hometown with his girlfriend he finds that nothing looks familiar.  Then, walking along a road confused, a car bumps him and he rolls into the ditch alongside.  Shaken, he stands up and checks for injuries. 

  Just before giving himself a clean bill of health, he examines an abrasion on his right forearm which strangely does not bleed.  We watch as he peels it back revealing lights and gears etc.  He’s a robot and no less astonished uncovering that fact than are we.


  Good story huh?  Well, it came to mind the other day when I read a paper written by Nick Bostrom, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Oxford.  It’s serious, well wrought, and entitled “Are You Living In A Computer Simulation”.

  “This paper argues that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.”

  It is all too easy to understand statement (1), but it is not unreasonable to doubt (hope!) that’s (not) how the future will unfold.  For statement (2) to be the way things pan out Bostrom argues that all future civilizations must converge in their inability or unwillingness to undertake ‘ancestor-simulations’.

  Statement (3) is by far the most interesting.  Perhaps we are not in the fundament of reality.  Perhaps some zitty ubergeek is at the controls.  When he/she/it detects incipient awareness in one of us he/she/it rewinds and edits or maybe just sends us to a bar.

  Computing power has increased incredibly and the pace seems only to quicken.  Moore’s Law has shortened from eighteen to twelve months.  Watson, the supercomputer that just bested the Jeopardy human champs juggles 80 trillion calculations a second spread over ninety servers.  At least one big thinker, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that a PC sized machine will be able crunch that much that fast in a decade or less.

  Bostrom demonstrates that there are no theoretical limits to continued expansion.  In a posthuman stage of civilization, he posits, such a mature stage of technological development will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.

  Extremely sophisticated simulations are employed today for all manner of undertakings.  It seems inevitable that our distant descendants would run simulations of their forebears.  Furthermore, …”if we don’t believe that we are currently living in a computer simulation, we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations…”

  Implications?  No radical ramifications.  There might well be subtle modifications to our belief systems related to a desire to understand posthuman motivations, but “no tendency to make us ‘go crazy’”.  However, I guess I’d hope that they don’t run out of computer power or trip over the plug.    

*In His Image was the name of the Twilight Zone episode…

**Veracity of proposition (3) would ‘aha’ the manner in which mathematics perfectly describe the whole fabric of our universe.

***cf Post of 12/24/11 in which I discussed the concentric circles in the cosmic background radiation that Roger Penrose posits are vestiges of a former universe and how it might relate to “a Platonic world of abstract realities that can be discovered by human investigation, but are independent of human existence”.

****Here is Professor Bostrom’s paper.  Read it.  You’ll be blown away.

Take The Stairs

February 11, 2011

  I’m interested in stairs.  Their purpose is obvious, but appearance and experience vary considerably.  More than any other aspect of the built environment, they make you aware of your own presence within or upon it..  Successful negotiation of even a single step transition requires a greater portion of one’s attention than the whole rest of a structure’s circulation pattern. 

  That’s not my photo, but I’ve seen and climbed such steps (moki or moqui steps) in a place called The Maze in Canyonlands National Park.  I’m not afraid of heights and find pleasure in challenging vertical progress, but was impressed, scared, and thrilled during several such ascents.  I learned something about the nature of the consciousness of their engineers.

  They were hardy and adventurous souls not yet numbed by the comforts of life nor inured to the possibility of an exuberant experience of it.  They didn’t have to go up there.  Not that way anyhow.  Consequences of a fall are obvious.  That stairway to heaven is more than just a short cut in something “nasty, brutish, and short.

  A grander, more complex, and dramatic moment will be had upon the steps in the vestibule of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.  Even from the photo one can get a sense of the power of that small space.  Look at the foreboding cascade of those stairs.  They make you either shrink back or scurry quickly upward to the safe solemnity of the reading room.

  Other aspects add to the pressure by manipulation of classical ideas.  Michelangelo’s friend and biographer Vasari wrote that it: “broke the bonds and chains of … common usage”.  For example, the columns seem to be swallowed up by the walls rather than exhibiting discrete strength in the foreground.  They are indeed load bearing elements, but with convoluted psychological effect.

  This project, designed for the Medicis in 1558, displayed the range and depth of Michelangelo’s architectural power for the first time and marked the transition to its practice that dominated the rest of his life.  Even so, one might find him/herself here alone while having had to wait in lines to David across town or hours to gaze up at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

  Finally, I’m just about ready to go to a meeting in our art museum.  All front of house traffic either ascends the staircase pictured above or via the elevator.  Which mode one selects significantly impacts the entire visit.  The interior of the large elevator is stainless.  You feel like you’re in a ‘Sub-Zero’ kitchen for a few moments and they you’re there.

  The Grand Stair, by contrast, makes for a powerful exercise in the clearing of one’s mind.  Thoughts fall away as you move slowly upward.  Wow.  Wonder what’s up here.  At the top you catch your breath eager for interaction with beauty – the world left far behind.  Take the stairs. 

“Of Such Poetry Is Consciousness Made”

February 4, 2011


  Snow blanketing the earth… This metaphor came to mind while discussing figures of speech with my youngest daughter the other day just as the recent blizzard picked up steam.  (There goes another one – and I’ve mixed ‘em already!  Dang!)

  Metaphors and similes are interesting.  No, much more than that.  They’ve been the generative force behind the development of language and the concomitant expansion of our consciousness.  Think about it.  You’re trying to explain a new concept to, say, your child.  “Well sweetie, it is uh, sort of like…

  See what I mean?  Take that back a few eons when the tongues of our ancestors first started wagging and you will find that “language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors”.  Take for example the conjugation of the elemental, but irregular verb ‘to be’.   

  It comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “to grow” or “make grow”.  The English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ evolved from the Sanskrit verb ‘to breathe’.  The consideration of this is sort of like linguistic archaeology.  “It is a record of a time when man had no independent word for existence and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that ‘it breathes’. 

  The ability to construct metaphors and similes must have greatly quickened the pace of evolution for both language and consciousness.  Pick a body part and think off the endless words and concepts for which it is the root: “head of an army, table, page, bed, ship, household, nail, steam, water; eyes of needles, winds, storms, targets, flowers, or potatoes…” etc etc.

  Or back to the snow.  The idea of a white blanket upon the earth generates the notion of seasonal dormancy.  The earth, plants, hibernating animals are all put to a cozy rest till spring.  Whole lot of info conveyed by the employment of a single word in this referential manner.

  What really blows me away is that by extension, the content of our subjective conscious mind is but a metaphor itself for the external real world.  And, frustratingly, that being the case we shall never be able to achieve an understanding of our consciousness in the same way we can of something of which we are conscious.

*This quote, the ones below, and the content of this post were drawn from one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read: The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.  I’ve referred to it before and I’m sure I will again.

**In a footnote of my 9/3/10 post I mentioned the visit by my daughter and son in law to the library in Alexandria, Egypt.  They reported that 98% of the many computer screens were logged on to Facebook. It will be interesting to see how the current state of affairs pans out.  Social media breathing life into democracy or chaos.  And, in either case, does go any credit/blame to GWB?