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The Hard Problem

September 3, 2017 Leave a comment

Recently, while purchasing a few items at a wholesaler I was asked what I was listening to on my phone (because I had my Apple earphones on). I told the person I was listening to a podcast, and when that got a blank response I explained it was like a recorded radio program automatically downloaded from the internet, and that this one was by a philosopher and was mainly about politics. I was asked “are you listening to parliament?” and decided it was best to not try to explain further by making a joke like: “I wouldn’t listen to that because I want to retain what small scraps of sanity I still have.”

But it did emphasise how little most people know or care about many of the things that interest me, including some of the most difficult and obscure problems in science and philosophy today. Now, please don’t think I’m being elitist or arrogant because I know that I am no expert on any of this stuff, I just find it interesting, and knowing more about it is part of my aim to be good at everything but brilliant at nothing!

More recently I listened to another podcast in the same series which dealt with a subject which exactly of the type I mentioned above. That is the hard problem of consciousness. What is consciousness, where does it come from, and what else possesses it, apart from me?

Before I continue I will say what I mean by consciousness here. Basically it is the feeling that I (and presumably others) have that I am an individual, that I have some continuity of existence from the past, that I have some form of free will (or at least the illusion of that) to control the world to some extent. Where does this come from?

The idea which I find most compelling, and the one which I think is generally accepted by the majority of scientists is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the processes which occur inside a brain of sufficient complexity. But some people, especially some philosophers and a lot of theologians, believe it is better explained through dualism. That is the idea that there is something beyond the physical processes of thought occurring in the brain. Maybe that there is a “soul” (not necessarily in the religious sense) which is in final control of the physical processes.

At this stage, all the neuroscience I have heard of gives me no reason to think that anything beyond the purely material exists. But I want to ignore the good, solid stuff like that and consider some idle speculation and thought experiments instead!

Imagine my personal identity, my mind, my consciousness is an emergent property of my brain processes. What would happen if an exact copy of me was made (in something like a Star Trek transporter which copied the original person instead of moving him). Where would my consciousness them lie? The copy would be identical, with an identical brain and identical processes. If my thoughts arose from physical processes would I experience them in both bodies simultaneously?

Alternatively, imagine it was possible to “back up” all the information in a brain and upload it to a computer, then re-establish it after death or injury. What would happen if it was downloaded into a different brain? What would happen if it ran on an artificial brain in the computer itself?

Another disturbing question is how complex does a brain need to be before it becomes conscious? It certainly seems that many animals are self-aware. Surely chimps, dolphins, etc have similar levels of consciousness to humans. What about cats and dogs? Rats and mice? Flies? Where does it end?

And if consciousness arises through the processing power of a brain, can it also arise in an artificial brain, like a sufficiently complex and properly programmed computer? Or does it only arise in “naturally arising” entities. What about in an alien? What if that alien evolved a silicon brain very similar to a computer?

We know that our cells are constantly being replaced, don’t we? Well no, that isn’t exactly true. Different cells have different “life spans”, from a few days up to apparently the life of the individual. Significantly, it is some types of brain neurons which are never replaced. Is it these cells which give us our individual identity?

Now let’s imagine that duality is a better explanation. There are some anecdotes indicating that consciousness apparently exists independently of the body. There are out of body experiences, various phenomena such as ESP, reincarnation, and near death experiences. Some of these seem quite compelling but they have never been confirmed by any rigorous scientific study.

Maybe the brain is just an interface between the non-physical seat of consciousness and the body. If the brain is damaged or dies the consciousness still exists but has no way to interact with the world. It would be difficult to distinguish between that and the emergent phenomenon hypothesis I outlined above so maybe this is one of those theories which is “not even wrong”.

Finally there is computation and maths. The way maths seems to reflect and even predict reality has been a puzzle since the article called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” was published almost 50 years ago. Some physicists have noted that reality seems to almost arise from a form of computation, which seems to explain the effectiveness of maths.

So now we seem to be getting back to the idea that the universe might be a simulation (see my blog post titled “Life’s Just a Game” from 2016-07-06). If it is then the universe was created by someone (or something). Would that thing be a god? And if the individual entities are “just” part of a simulation do they have any less moral rights as a result?

Maybe all of this stuff is “not even wrong” and maybe it is pointless to even speculate about it, but sometimes doing pointless things is OK, just as long as we don’t take it too seriously.

So I think I will continue to listen to philosophical musings rather than the rather more mundane business of politics I hear in parliament. Actually, I think there is room for both, because politics is also a subject I include in my “good at everything” strategy. And one thing is clear: in most subjects being above average isn’t difficult!

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Captain’s Log

August 28, 2017 Leave a comment

Captain’s Log, Mission Day 30476.32

At 0.30 today we deactivated the star drive and approached the planet.

As our astronomers had already discovered, it is a rocky world orbiting a yellow dwarf sun. Compared to our own world it is just slightly smaller and hotter, and its sun is remarkably similar to ours, so it might almost seem like home to us.

The mysterious presence of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere has been confirmed by our observations but we are still too far away to discover what it source is. Whether it turns out to be some complex inorganic chemical reaction or the side effect of life we cannot yet tell.

I don’t need to tell you what a discovery it would be if this planet does have life, because in all the thousands of planets we have visited, all have been barren. Maybe we are the only ones, or maybe we have just been unlucky in our search so far. After all, there are hundreds of billions of planets in this galaxy alone and the few thousand we have visited is just a tiny start in exploring them. But I will end my speculation here because tomorrow we might know.

Day 30477.27

The detail visible on the planet’s surface is increasing rapidly as we approach. This final stage of space travel is frustrating, of course, because inside a solar system we cannot use the star drive and must revert to conventional propulsion systems.

The feature which dominates the planet’s surface is a huge impact crater which we calculate was formed relatively recently. If there was life on this planet it would likely have been virtually wiped out by this disaster.

A spectrographic analysis will be complete later today, and that should reveal the presence of the molecules of life if they exist here. We should soon know the answer to the question we came here for.

Day 30477.34

The spectrography is complete and we are almost 100% certain there is life on the planet. A molecule which is very similar to one used by plant life on our own planet has been detected in great quantities. It seems that all of the oceans (which cover over 60% of the planet’s surface) and a lot of the land contain some sort of organism which can convert sunlight to energy and release oxygen in the process. This explains the excess oxygen in the atmosphere.

Day 30478.72

We have put the ship into orbit around the mysterious planet and our detailed observations are now revealing something which has produced a lot of disagreement among our scientists. There are apparently symmetric structures over many parts of the planet which seem artificial. They are covered with many years of dust and debris from the impact but some of our more radical researchers think they are the remains of great structures built by an intelligent species which one lived here.

We are almost ready to send a party down to investigate these in more detail. This is potentially the greatest discovery of all time. Initially we coud barely hope to find any life here but now we are serious about the possibility of finding intelligent life.

Day 30479.37

The unthinkable has happened. Our landing party has confirmed that the structures are artificial. There seems to be no other explanation except they were built by an intelligence with technology approaching our own in sophistication. We now need to establish whether they survived the asteroid impact.

Day 30479.82

Most of the land surface of the planet has been devastated, but some life in the oceans has survived. We have discovered a massive variety of different species there, a few of which have some level of intelligence, but there is no sign of technology.

Day 30480.21

The exploration of the alien structures (it seems obvious they were cities where large numbers – perhaps millions – of the aliens lived) continues, and we have made a very significant discovery which might allow us to explore the history of the planet. We have found various objects which seem to be storage devices. Our best technicians will work on these and if we can read them we might be able to translate whatever information they contain.

Day 30480.69

The storage devices appear to contain electronic circuits based on silicon technology. We should be able to adapt some of our own computers to read them because they are similar to a technology we have used recently before moving to photonic storage.

Day 30481.11

We have cracked the storage devices! They contain data stored in an 8 bit code which maps to an alphabet. It seems that the symbols in this alphabet form groups which correspond to words in a language. The language is very obscure and is likely something which has changed and become more complex over a long time period. We will continue to work on decoding it.

Day 30482.48

The language decoding is progressing rapidly and we now know a lot about the society that existed there. A lot of what I am going to say here will seem shocking, but our best language experts and anthropologists agree it is what they material we have discovered reveals, and fits in with the physical evidence we see on almost the entire surface of the planet.

The intelligent inhabitants of the planet were called “humans” and the planet was called “Earth”. There were millions of different species on the planet before the impact but 90% of them, including all of the land species, were wiped out.

We cannot find any signs that any of the humans survived, but they did have the technology available to live almost indefinitely in the oceans so some might survive there. They also had space technology sufficient to travel around the solar system, but did not have the capability for interstellar travel.

The humans had a society which had many admirable characteristics. The planet was divided into hundreds of areas called “countries” which had slightly different types of inhabitants, different leadership, economic systems, etc. Most of the countries had a system to choose a leader where the population voted and the most successful person became leader for a period of time. Unfortunately this system became corrupted and the leaders were rarely very competent.

Most shockingly there was constant competition between these countries and this often extended to organised combat between different factions, often resulting in numerous deaths. Reasons for these “wars” included competition over resources, land ownership, and even differences in opinion over philosophy, including (most bizarrely) an amazingly common system known as “religion” where the humans became believers in various supernatural entities. Why they maintained these bizarre beliefs and how one myth was chosen over another requires further study.

You can see at this point that humans exhibited a strange combination of quite advanced science and technology and surprisingly primitive beliefs. It would not be uncommon, for example, for a believer in a supernatural entity who espoused pacifism to use an advanced combat machine of some sort to kill thousands of his opponents who believed in a slightly different deity. Clearly our anthropologists have a lot of work to do in this area.

But finally in this initial report on the history of humans I must discuss the most obvious question, and the one which is both hardest to understand and the most tragic to contemplate. That is, if the humans had the technology available, why did they not divert the asteroid, avoid the impact in some other way, or even move some of their people to another planet?

The initial evidence seems to indicate that they were too distracted with other things, especially their economic system. A lot of resource and effort was applied to things which make no sense, such as persuading people to buy unhealthy drinks which had no benefit at all, or paying participants in entertainment events which no intelligent person could take seriously. Yet all this time completely inadequate effort was put into protecting the planet from obvious threats.

When the asteroid was first seen it was already too late. A small investment in monitoring the sky for asteroids and in the technology required to divert them would have saved the planet. Yet they seemed to believe that other things were more important.

As captain, I shouldn’t really offer a value judgement on what happened here on Earth, but it is so disappointing to find a spark of intelligence, so rare in this universe, has now gone, completely unnecessarily. And I have to say that, given the way they acted, maybe it was for the best.

Forget About Growth

August 23, 2017 Leave a comment

I recently read a brief report on how an individual could make the greatest contribution to minimising climate change. This has been a controversial subject for many years now but the need to act is now more accepted.

So it seems that the world is gradually coming around to the idea that climate change is real and – even more gradually – to the idea that we need to do something about it. Even Donald Trump’s latest opinion is that is something that needs to be acted on, but he would prefer not to it through Paris Agreement.

So people who don’t accept climate change as real are probably increasingly irrelevant, and the discussion on what to do about it is where the real conflict now happens. Unfortunately it is now too late to fix the problem relatively painlessly and only difficult options remain. So the people who refused to accept reality in the past have now got us to the point where they now don’t want to act because it is too hard, but that is only because of their past obstructiveness.

But this post isn’t primarily yet another lecture on climate change. I like to tackle the really big subjects so this goes beyond the biggest problem facing modern society and looks at the cause of it, and most of the other major problems we have.

Getting back to the report: it listed several actions an individual could take and showed how many tonnes of CO2 emissions per year that would save. Upgrading to low energy light bulbs would save 0.1 tonnes, recycling would save about 0.2, going vegetarian about 0.5, buying only green energy 1.5, avoiding a trans-Atlantic air trip 1.6, and having one fewer child 60 tonnes.

The methodology used to generate these numbers could be debated, but the overall message is still relevant: that the real source of most of our problems is that there are too many people! When having one less person in the world saves six times more CO2 than all the usual energy saving efforts combined this should be obvious.

There is nothing inherently wrong with burning fossil fuels, we are just burning too much. A certain amount of rain forest clearance is sustainable but it is just happening too quickly. The environment can cope with some level of pollution but not the levels we generate now. Famine primarily happens because there are too many people for what the land can produce in food. Many conflicts happen because populations exceed the levels a country can cope with.

I can remember that a few decades back population control was one of the most commonly discussed issues in environmentalism but now it is hardly heard. What has changed?

That’s hard to know, for sure, but I think a major factor is capitalism’s constant need for growth. We have seen this everywhere. Unless business is growing we have a recession. The idea that the economy might have reached a point where is it sufficiently healthy and we don’t need any further growth just seems impossible to contemplate.

Growth in itself isn’t always problematic – although it often is – but the way that growth often happens is. Here in New Zealand it has mainly been achieved through increased population . We keep hearing that our economy is healthy and growing but, of course, it isn’t. Measures, such as per capita GDP, which calculate the economic contribution for each person, have not changed, and some have actually gone backwards.

So there is no growth except in population, and increased population is causing many social and environmental problems, including poverty, homelessness, and traffic congestion.

New Zealand has a small enough population that even quite significant percentage increases can be absorbed without causing a total disaster, but the same phenomenon in other countries which already have large populations is a bigger problem, and each country affects all the others.

Water pollution is a major issue in New Zealand. Why do we have that? Because we have too many dairy cows, and the reason we have those is that there is a good market for milk powder to feed all the Chinese people who are suddenly participating in the global economy. And the effects of overpopulation is much worse in India and some other countries.

We have too many cows because farmers can make more money by cramming more cows into land which previously was not used for dairying. They are prepared to do this while destroying our environment because, in capitalism, too much is never enough.

There are other causes of overpopulation, of course. I have already blamed capitalism so you might not be surprised to hear the next culprit I will accuse is religion! There is no doubt that religious beliefs such as an aversion to birth control and a need to have large families to increase the number of members of your particular church are a problem (yes, I’m talking about you Catholicism and Islam).

And to make matters even worse, the increased birth rate because of this is often in exactly the countries which are already struggling with famine, civil war, and other significant issues.

We need a bit more rationality in this world. I don’t mean I want to have everyone walking around like robots or Mr Spock, I just mean we could do without the more extreme cases of irrationality which cause a lot of harm to society in general. And the pursuit of growth for no good reason would be a great place to start.

A Ponzi Scheme

August 14, 2017 Leave a comment

Everyone has heard of Ponzi schemes, right? If not, here’s the dictionary definition: a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a non-existent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors. It is named after Charles Ponzi who set up elaborate money-making ventures based on the system in the early 1900s.

Typically the first few people involved in the scheme promise to pay huge returns to the “investors” and when these are demanded they are paid from the initial investments made from other investors. It can never last, of course, but the original perpetrators usually try to get out before it all turns bad.

A related scheme is known as a “pyramid scheme”. In these the early “investors” are paid a fee by those they recruit and a lesser amount by those the recruiters recruit, etc. It works as long as new people are recruited, but the “deeper” into the scheme you are the less you will get and the more you will be paying those at the peak.

A unique feature of these schemes is that the organisation or individual running the scheme doesn’t actually need to do anything apart from run the scheme. They don’t need to sell anything or provide any service, for example. The scheme is entirely about shuffling money from one place to another (generally from the “suckers” who sign up late to those who were involved in the initial setup of the scheme).

As we all know, there are some pyramid schemes which also sell products (I’m sure we can all name some) but that is more or less just a cover for the dishonest underlying structure.

I was thinking about this recently and realised that there are many aspects of our modern economic system which make it look like just another Ponzi scheme. The economy only works well while there is “growth” or “increased efficiency or productivity”, yet these aims are totally unsustainable in the long term, and even during the short period that they are sustainable they are often undesirable.

In New Zealand a major election issue is immigration. New Zealand allegedly has a healthy and growing economy – and some stats support this view – yet the vast majority of people don’t feel as if they are doing well. How is this possible? Well basically it gets back to the fact that this alleged “growth” we see in our “rock star economy” is all fake. It is primarily due to increased population, provided by immigration, and no real progress has been made at all.

Unfortunately for the politicians supporting this scheme, it cannot last. Like most rock stars our economy will crash and burn when the excesses of its existence overtake any worthwhile contribution it is making. Eventually everyone will realise they are just being ripped off by a giant Ponzi scheme. But by that time the people in government who have created this situation will probably be gone.

Of course I should point out two things here. First, a pyramid scheme is probably a better description that a Ponzi for the economy, but Ponzi just sounds cooler so it better serves my rhetorical narrative; and second, the economy isn’t a pure Ponzi or pyramid scheme and almost everyone would admit that it works well in some ways.

Despite the obvious and numerous faults in capitalism, for example, it does produce the goods and services the First World needs to maintain its lavish lifestyle. As I have pointed out many times in the past, the system is grossly inefficient, poorly focussed, and generally corrupt, but I would never claim it doesn’t have some good points as well, especially for the original investors in the Ponzi or the people at the top of the pyramid (AKA the 1%).

But it will fail because indefinite growth is impossible and because the 99% who support the people at the top of the pyramid will eventually catch on to what’s really happening and rebel. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Like all Ponzi schemes it will fail and it will probably happen through catastrophic collapse rather than a careful restructuring.

When it happens it won’t be pretty, just like poor old Charles Ponzi’s slow and painful decline and death after all his wonderful and elaborate schemes failed.

Care, Think, Vote

August 10, 2017 Leave a comment

On what might be the most important day of the year so far for New Zealand politics (when the leader of the opposition was changed) a reporter from Radio NZ went out to South Auckland, which is a traditional Labour constituency. She asked what they think of Andrew Little (the old leader) and Jacinda Ardern (the new leader). Here’s what people said…

Reporter: Do you know who the Labour leader is at the moment? [possibly to see if they knew the leader had been changed]

First person: No [nervous laugh], no…

Second person: Umm, no I don’t actually, to be honest, no.

Third person: Ah, no I don’t actually.

Fourth person: Um, not as this morning, unless it’s changed already. [so you would know if it had changed, but not if it hadn’t?]

Fifth person: Um, I forgot his name, but I support him 100% [so that’s full support for someone whose name you can’t remember… OK] Yeah. [when told it was Andrew Little] Andrew Little, oh yeah, that’s his name, yeah. He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy. Yeah. [when told he had quit this morning] Well we needed him for like, you know, to win the election. But, I’m a bit gutted now, yeah.

Sixth person: Um, is it Bill English? [no, that’s the prime minister] Am I right? [reporter: have you heard of Andrew Little before] Um, I think so, maybe, years ago. [poor Andrew, he did have trouble reaching the people]

Seventh person: I don’t know. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern] Nope. [reporter:Do you know any Labour MPs] Oh, is Helen Clark one? [her friend laughs, and says “yeah”] There you go, Helen Clark. [she was leader about 10 years ago] [reporter: The new leader is Jacinda Ardern] Oh, OK. Cool, cool. [reporter: What do you think about that?] I think that’s a good idea. She’s young, vibrant, you know, she’ll have a lot of ideas, so yeah. [reporter: Do you know who Kelvin Davis is?] Yeah, I do. [reporter: He’s the new deputy] Is he? Well, that is pretty good, yeah.

Reporter: What would make you want to vote?

Eighth person: Build their “module” on more American style of politics which is more, I guess, showmanship, razzamatazz, probably get us a bit more interested in our politics, ’cause our politicians – no offence – are really quite ugly and boring, [no offense taken, I’m sure] so, it’s hard for millennials when all we care about is Rhianna and Drake. [reporter: What about Jacinda Ardern though] Oh, I don’t know, I mean, she’s no Helen Clark in my eyes, who’s a boss-as bitch. [best… comment… ever]

Overall, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. I mean, even in the past when I had no interest in politics at all I could at least name the leader of the opposition (as well as the PM and a few other key ministers) so the ignorance of these people is truly astonishing. And considering there will be a general election here in a few weeks you might expect political knowledge to be a bit better than this.

But in contrast, when interviewing people in South Dunedin after Jacinda Ardern became the new leader, we got these responses…

First person: Probably better for them, but too late, I don’t think I’d want to be Jacinda and inherit the Labour Party. [The Labour Party has done very well since Ardern took over]

Second person: She’ll be good but they still won’t get in. [This is still uncertain, but they have a lot better chance now than they did before the change]

Third person: She seems really like a typical NZ person with ambition. I didn’t have too much faith in Andrew Little. [Fair call. I actually liked Little, but he didn’t communicate well with the average voter]

Fourth person: I just think it’s cool having a younger person leading a party ’cause you always see these old men. [Another fair call. Some “old men” did connect with the people, but neither the current PM nor any recent previous Labour leader did]

Fifth person: I don’t know enough about her. I know nothing. [Well at least they admit it, and to be fair we don’t actually know much about her]

Sixth person: She’ll probably put everybody off Labour, unfortunately. [Judging by the polling this person could not be more wrong]

Seventh person: She’s charismatic but it’s too close to the election. It’s a bad look for the party. So yeah, maybe next time. [Apparently it is not too close. Things can change very quickly in politics]

So the question must be at this point, considering that everyone has a vote no matter how good or bad their knowledge of politics is, does democracy even work and is it really the right system?

There are a few caveats I should state here…

First, South Auckland is probably an unusually bad area to look for astute political commentary. Maybe other areas might offer a far better level of understanding (and the South Dunedin responses were better, so this idea has some support).

Second, we don’t know if the people on the broadcast were representative of all the people interviewed – maybe they were just 8 bad examples and there were hundreds of extremely knowledgeable people who didn’t appear… yeah, I doubt that too!

Third, is political “trivia” like this a good indicator of a person’s ability to make a well informed and meaningful vote? After all, I am only using naming the leader of the opposition as a proxy for the general knowlege necessary to vote well.

As you can probably tell by my dubious tone above, I’m not very convinced by these ideas. I think that most people do not have good knowledge of politics and current issues, and probably don’t really deserve a vote. But that is a very anti-democratic idea and it would be difficult to establish a system giving some people a vote while denying it to others.

So I guess we get back to that great quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government… apart from all the rest.” Or maybe the Opportunity Party’s tag line should be more appropriate: “Care, Think, Vote.”

Waking Up

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I have already mentioned in some past blog posts how interesting I find the ideas of neuroscientist and philosopher, Sam Harris. I recently started listening to his podcast “Waking Up” and before that had read a lot of material he has produced (including the books The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation) and watched many of his debates and lectures on YouTube.

It must be tempting for some of my debating opponents to say “of course you like Sam Harris – he is another militant atheist, just like you” but it goes beyond that. I find everything he says genuinely thoughtful and he doesn’t just fit in with a stereotype such as materialist, anti-theist, or liberal.

I like this because I am always suspicious of people whose ideas closely match a particular political, religious, or philosophical “clique”. For example, in the past it intrigued me how libertarians always supported the idea of free markets but rejected the truth of climate change.

Those two things aren’t really linked in any meaningful way, but if you found someone who thought a laissez-faire economy was a good idea they would probably also think that climate change was a conspiracy. That is not so much true today because climate change is becoming increasingly difficult to deny, but it was common 10 years ago.

And with conservatives it might be common to find other ideas such as aggressive military intervention and being anti-abortion associated. These really do not seem like they should be linked in any way, yet they are.

Finally – and this is something I might have been guilty about in the past before I “woke up” – liberals are also susceptible to this phenomenon. Many would (and still do) believe in strong environmental protection while also being against genetic modification. A strong case could be made that in order to protect the environment genetic modification is almost a necessity, although I admit there are other options as well.

My point here is that it is unlikely that individuals have some to these conclusions based on deep and unbiased examination of the facts. If they did I would expect to see a lot more variation in how the ideas I have listed are linked. For example, there should be a lot more environmentalist who strongly support research into genetic engineering.

It seems far more likely that these ideas have come about as a result of them being “absorbed” from other people in their social group. So if you live in a conservative environment you would absorb diverse attitudes such as being anti-abortion, pro-guns, anti-welfare, etc, while if you came from a liberal environment the exact opposite would be true.

Both Harris and I seem to be less easily classifiable into commonly recognised groups. We get quite strong negative feedback (often it is genuine abuse and threats) from all sides of the political spectrum. Of course, Harris is a well-known public intellectual and I am just an obscure blogger, but I would still like to think we share a lot in common.

So to give you an idea of why I count myself as a “rationalist” rather than any of the more traditional groupings, such as “conservative” or “liberal” or “libertarian”, here is a list of my attitudes on some contentious subjects…

Equality. I think everyone should get a fair chance to succeed and utilise their talents, but I am very suspicious of political correctness and affirmative action. I would be far happier seeing equality achieved in ways which don’t simply give advantages to “minority” groups even if there is good reason to think they are disadvantaged in some situations currently.

Environmentalism. I strongly support environmental protection. I think a natural consequence of unfettered capitalism is the destruction of the environment, so capitalism must be controlled. I tend towards the idea that we must move on from capitalism completely, but in the interim controlling it is sufficient.

Immigration. I think it is good to have some variety in the backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs of people in every country, but I don’t want that to extend to people with extreme beliefs that might destroy the positive character a country already has. For example, for a Muslim to come to New Zealand they should first prove they don’t take their religion too seriously by eating a pork sausage or some similar test!

Free Markets. I understand why people don’t want their government controlling the economy in too fine detail (or at all in some cases) but I can’t see the advantage in handing over control to large corporations which are probably even less likely to have the best interests of the majority in mind. So I think markets should be controlled where it makes sense but not to a ridiculous extend such as where obsolete industries are artificially kept running.

Abortion. I am conflicted here. The problem is that there is no obvious point where a cell becomes a foetus and a foetus becomes a baby. I think abortion in the very early stages of a pregnancy is OK but how to determine where the point is when a distinct, conscious individual is involved is difficult to determine.

Gun Control. I understand that the best way to avoid gun deaths is to eliminate guns and that is at least partly practical in some countries. But in others, such as the US, that chance has passed so guns must be accepted as a necessary evil. It should be necessary to prove a high degree of competency in using one before a license to own a firearm is issued though. I know that the “bad guys” will just get guns without a license, but at least the legal owners will have a higher level of skill and that might make the defensive advantage of guns greater.

Racism, Misogyny, Xenophobia, etc. I reject the idea of being biased against anyone because of factors such as race, gender, or country of origin. I also know that scientific tests show that everyone is biased in exactly these ways, often subconsciously! But at least knowing that, a person can try to overcome that bias. But, I also reject the over-use of these terms. For example, saying I don’t want a fundamentalist Muslim allowed into the country isn’t racist because Islam isn’t a race, it’s an idea. I reject bais against people, but not against ideas.

I hope that by looking at those opinions I could not be easily labelled with any of the traditional stereotyped political identities. I see some good points in all political positions and yes, I’m not afraid to admit that I agree with a few things controversial figures like Donald Trump have said.

And unlike most of my opponents I can justify my opinions with rational reasoning, not with simple-minded dogmatic hypocrisy which I so often see from people who obviously identify with one political movement. Instead of trying to fit in with that identity and to impress their friends with similar beliefs they should learn to think for themselves. They should wake up!

1K of RAM

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

One of my first computers had just 1K of RAM. That’s enough to store… well, almost nothing. It could store 0.01% of a (JPEG compressed) digital photo I now take on my dSLR or 0.02% of a short (MP3 compressed) music track. In other words, I would need 10 thousand of these devices (in this case a Sinclair ZX80) to store one digital photo!

I know the comparison above is somewhat open to criticism in that I am comparing RAM with storage and that early computers could have their memory upgraded (to a huge 16K in the case of the ZX80) but the point remains the same: even the most basic computer today is massively superior to what we had in the “early days” of computers.

It should be noted that, despite these limitations, you could still do stuff with those early computers. For example, I wrote a fully functioning “Breakout” game in machine code on the ZX80 (admittedly with the memory expansion) and it was so fast I had to put a massive loop in the code to slow it down. That was despite the fact that the ZX80 had a single 8 bit processor running at 3.25 MHz which is somewhat inferior to my current laptop (now a few years out of date) which has four 64 bit cores (8 threads) running at 2.5 GHz.

The reason I am discussing this point here is that I read an article recently titled “The technology struggles every 90s child can relate to”. I wasn’t exactly a child in the 90s but I still struggled with this stuff!

So here’s the list of struggles in the article…

1. Modems

Today I “know everything” because in the middle of a discussion on any topic I can search the internet for any information I need and have it within a few seconds. There are four components to this which weren’t available in the 90s. First, I always have at least one device with me. It’s usually my iPhone but I often have an iPad or laptop too. Second, I am always connected to the internet no matter where I am (except for rare exceptions). Third, the internet is full of useful (and not useful) information on any topic you can image. And finally, Google makes finding that information easy (most of the time).

None of that was available in the 90s. To find a piece of information I would need to walk to the room where my desktop computer lived, boot it, launch a program (usually an early web browser), hope no one else was already using the phone line, wait for the connection to start, and laboriously look for what I needed (possibly using an early search engine) allowing for the distinct possibly that it didn’t exist.

In reality, although that information retrieval was possible both then and now, it was so impractical and slow in the 90s that it might as well have not existed at all.

2. Photography

I bought a camera attachment for one of my early cell phones and thought how great it was going to be taking photos anywhere without the need to take an SLR or compact (film) camera with me. So how may photos did I take with that camera? Almost none, because it was so slow, the quality was so bad, and because it was an attachment to an existing phone it tended to get detached and left behind.

Today my iPhone has a really good camera built-in. Sure it’s not as good as my dSLR but it is good enough, especially for wide-angle shots where there is plenty of light. And because my iPhone is so compact and easy to take everywhere (despite its astonishing list of capabilities) I really do have it with me always. Now I take photos every day and they are good enough to keep permanently.

3. Input devices

The original item here was mice, but I have extended it to mean all input devices. Mice haven’t changed much superficially but modern, wireless mice with no moving parts are certainly a lot better than their predecessors. More importantly, alternative input devices are also available now, most notably touch interfaces and voice input.

Before the iPhone no one really knew how to create a good UI on a phone but after that everything changed, and multi-touch interfaces are now ubiquitous and (in general, with a few unfortunate exceptions) are very intuitive and easy to use.

4. Ringtones

This was an item in the article but I don’t think things have changed that much now so I won’t bother discussing this one.

5. Downloads

Back in the day we used to wait hours (or days) for stuff to download from on-line services. Some of the less “official” services were extremely well used back then and that seems to have reduced a bit now, although downloading music and movies is still popular, and a lot faster now.

The big change here is maybe the change from downloads to streaming. And the other difference might be that now material can be acquired legally for a reasonable price rather than risking the dodgy and possibly virus infected downloads of the past.

6. Clunky Devices

In the 90s I would have needed many large, heavy, expensive devices just to do what my iPhone does now. I would need a gaming console, a music player with about 100 CDs to play in it, a hand-held movie player (if they even existed), a radio, a portable TV, an advanced calculator, a GPS unit, a compass, a barometer, an altimeter, a torch, a note pad, a book of maps, a small library of fiction and reference books, several newspapers, and a computer with functions such as email, messaging, etc.

Not only does one iPhone replace all of those functions, saving thousands of dollars and about a cubic meter of space, but it actually does things better than a lot of the dedicated devices. For example, I would rather use my iPhone as a GPS unit than a “real” GPS device.

7. Software

Software was a pain, but it is till often a pain today so maybe this isn’t such a big deal! At least it’s now easy to update software (it often happens with no user intervention at all) and installing over the internet is a lot easier than from 25 floppy disks!

Also, all software is installed in one place and doesn’t involve running from disk or CD. In fact, optical media (CDs and DVDs) are practically obsolete now which isn’t a bad thing because they never were particularly suitable for data storage.

8. Multi-User, Multi-Player

The article here talks about the problem of having multiple players on a PlayStation, but I think the whole issue of multiple player games (and multi-user software in general) is now taken for granted. I play against other people on my iPhone and iPad every day. There’s no real extra effort at all, and playing against other people is just so much more rewarding, especially when smashing a friend in a “friendly” race in a game like Real Racing 3!

So, obviously things have improved greatly. Some people might be tempted to get nostalgic and ask if things are really that much better today. My current laptop has 16 million times as much memory, hundreds of thousands times as much CPU power, and 3000 times as many pixels as my ZX80 but does it really do that much more? Hell, yes!