Flag On The Moon

How did it get there?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Your privileged place in the universe



Once upon a time, humanity thought the earth was the center of the universe. But as it later turned out, earth was a tiny speck orbiting a small and unremarkable star in a nondescript fluff of solar systems on a secondary branch of one of the four arms of an ordinary galaxy in a remote suburb of the Virgo Supercluster, two hundred fifty million light years from the Great Attractor.

Additionally, it turned out the universe didn't even HAVE a center. Either it was infinite, or it just wrapped around, like the game Asteroids.

In hindsight, the idea that the earth was the center of the universe seemed rather naive, and rather presumptuous as well. A failure of the imagination.

Once upon a time, humanity thought that they were created in god's image. But as it later turned out, they were created by the same mindless process that produced bees and pelicans and poison ivy, and this process began by accident.

Not only were they not created in god's image, nothing was. God didn't even exist.

Examples of this sort generally come in threes, and this is no exception.

Once upon a time, humanity thought that the world they lived in was real. But as it later turned out, the world and everything in it, including them, was a fiction. And not only was it a fiction, it was a fiction within a fiction, a simulation in a story in a dream, a thing so insubstantial, by the standards of the time most would not have considered it to exist at all.

Moreover, the reality to which they aspired did not exist. Avalon, the one true world at the top of the hierarchy, was a myth. And in its place, an infinite regress.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Speed and intelligence




This is a video of someone beating the game Pokemon Yellow in slightly over two minutes.

It's incomprehensible. If you play it in extreme slow motion, it's still incomprehensible, because it's not the speed of the button-mashing that takes a game usually beaten in hours or days and does it in minutes, it's the amount of thought that goes into each button mashed. The depth of the contemplation is such that even the author's comments, which explain what was done, will still be largely incomprehensible to most people.



If in 1954, 27 years of history suddenly took place in a day, a stereotypical pipe-smoking, newspaper-reading man from 1954 could, if he replayed it in extreme slow motion, eventually understand the world of 1981. But if tomorrow it's 2008, and the day after tomorrow it's 2035, history will completely transcend him. It's absolutely hopeless for him to achieve even a basic grasp of what's going on.



The point I'm trying to make is that a simple overclocking of the speed of thought is more than enough to write humanity's final chapter.



Also see: Orbital - The Box

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Reason



Remember THE ENEMIES OF REASON? With richard dawkins? He talks about how astrologers and psychics are full of crap, and they're destroying civilization. It's a TV documentary.

It's not particularly good. I mean, he does a good job of explaining why psychics and astrologers are full of crap, and he's not as screamy as penn and teller, but the idea that these people are destroying civilization seems a bit unlikely to me, and while i agree with dawkins's methods, i don't, of course, entirely agree with his conclusions. If, somehow, magically, shucksters and people who make money by exploiting incredibly idiotic crap didn't exist, you just move on to the next lowest layer of scum.

Used car salesmen, I suppose. It depends on where you draw the line between a scam and an ad, or between a delusion and a diversion. I mean, who does more damage, astrologers or burger king? And yet, I'd hardly say burger king is destroying civilization either. Did you watch that roundtable discussion between dawkins, hitchens....... uh....... who else...the black guy? with the funny name? No, it was dawkins, hitchens, dennett, and harris.

It's not a bad discussion, but the interesting thing to me is how sam harris seems to be kind of in a corner by himself through most of it, not disagreeing with the rest of them, but basically tired of the way they just keep rehashing the same crap they've been saying for years and years. Hitchens, dawkins, and dennett are these three old guys, and they do that thing old people do where they pick up a thread of conversation they're familiar with and launch into a speech they've made a million times. And a lot of the things they say are really rather disingenuous. They pretend not to understand the people who disagree with them, in order to gripe, and he calls them on it.

The whole thing the new atheists do where they blather on about the beauty of nature and science always seems rather flat to me. Knowing how a butterfly works, all the little bug organs and DNA and behavior patterns and evolutionary history doesn't make the butterfly prettier. It might make it more interesting, and it certainly is more useful, but to pretend the rational, scientific world view is a beautiful one is absurd, it's practically delusional. To see the world as it really is is something so painful that people actively avoid it. Reality is NOT, as the new atheists present it, a beautiful harmonious place comparable or even superior to the vague grand sketch of a cosmic theater presented by religion. It it something entirely different, and it is in many cases scary and unwelcome. Sometimes it can even drive people insane.

People didn't evolve to enjoy knowing how their digestive system works, or about the existence of germs, or having the biological roots of their happiness deconstructed. The point that should be made is not that these things are wonderful and lovely, it's that they're IMPORTANT. When people miss this distinction, it's troubling to me.

There's a difference between someone who is objective and someone who is simply right, someone who is in the camp of objectivity. There's a certain class of skeptics, atheists, etc, who tend to their beliefs in a very parochial way, who only think about things, and only enter the domain of discourse, to reaffirm for themselves the identity they have constructed as champions of objectivity and reason.

This is not to say that they're wrong, or even that their arguments are wrong. They may be entirely right, and they may argue using the most upstanding rhetoric. But sometimes the important issues only enter the argument in small ways. You may have a position which is ALMOST right, and there's just a hairline crack where it's wrong, a crack that becomes a vast fissure as it descends. In order to see these cracks, you have to be objective, and you have to be critical on a fundamental level, before being impassioned or indignant or smug, because if you set any belief or interest or opinion even SLIGHTLY further forward in your mental hierarchy than that critical edge, you will slide over the crack without ever noticing.




There's a difference between objectivity and science. Not just between objective thinking and the scientific status quo, but between objective critical thinking and SCIENTIFIC thinking.

Science is to critical thought as law is to ethics. Science is the critical thought of the society. As an individual, it is possible to KNOW something, objectively, rationally, that is scientifically impossible for you to prove. It doesn't even need to be something groundbreaking. You can know who committed a murder because you witnessed it, but have no way to prove your story is true.

But there are some who are more committed to science than they are to reason, and when the two diverge, they side with science. If they witness something that they cannot prove, they will rationalize it away, because in their mind, truth has become misidentified with provability.




My point is, when I see richard dawkins or whoever trumpeting the majesty of science or the wonder of math, it makes me say "Hmm". Eliezer yudkowsky does that trumpeting-the-wonder-of-science thing too, as well as the self-righteously-clamouring-about-incredibly-minor-issues thing. When I used the word "rationalized" just now, it brought to mind something he was blabbering on about one time about how "rationalizing" is irrational and thus the word SHOULD BE BANNED OMFG!!! Actually that may have been someone else. if so, I apologize.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

The sun



What would happen if the sun winked out of existence?

The earth, released from its orbit, would go flying out into the icy blackness of space. All the plants would die, and then all the animals that eat plants would die. And then all the animals that eat animals would die, except us humans because we could continue growing stuff in artificial environments.

The world would get colder and colder.

Without all the plants around, there'd be nothing to generate oxygen out of carbon dioxide. But without all the animals, we wouldn't need nearly as much, so we'd work out a way to do it before there were any real problems.

Many people would die. But in the end, the human race would definitely survive. All we get from the sun is light and heat, and we have alternate ways of making those things. That's a sobering thought, I think.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Buildings falling down



You may have seen this picture before. It's building 7 of the world trade center.

What does it mean to be skeptical, in the good sense? Skepticism means suspending belief, being systematically critical of all ideas. Being a skeptic means you trust your own judgment more than you trust the judgment of others.

Of course, sometimes we must trust the judgment of others. If your vet recommends a new type of cat food, you have no way of making sure that decision is sound. She has the information, she has the expertise. You have no choice but to trust her.

Except you don't, because now we have the internet. Suddenly it's not just you and the vet, it's you and the vet and thousands of cat owners and research studies and so on, and you can synthesize your own opinions. To skeptics, discovering the internet is like finding a flashlight in a world shrouded in darkness.

Are you a skeptic?

Reeeaaaally?

Presumably you see where this is going, and you're ready to cut me off at the pass. "I'm just not INTERESTED in conspiracy theories," you say, perhaps.

I'm suggesting there's a monster in the rafters, and you don't even care enough to shine the flashlight in that direction? It's not like I want you to go down to the library and wade through hundreds of old newspapers on microfilm. It's 2006, acquainting yourself with the actual content of the conspiracy theories would take an AFTERNOON. What's the big deal? I mean, if you just find the topic offensive or distressing, that's fine, that's perfectly normal.

It just doesn't square with your identity as a skeptic.

Today I read an article in TIME titled Why The 9/11 Conspiracies Won't Go Away. "Turns out, we need grand theories to make sense of grand events, or the world just seems too random".

The interesting thing about most articles concerning the 9/11 conspiracy theories is that they don't really talk about the actual content of the theories. They always mention the stupid missile-hitting-the-pentagon thing, and then the rest is a "people" story about those loony wacky nuts.

If you get your news from mainstream sources, you probably don't even know what the conspiracy theories say. Heck, you probably don't even know what the OFFICIAL story says, beyond "Osama bin Laden had some crazy guys hijack planes and fly them into buildings".
The official story says the flight data recorders of the four crashed planes were "unrecoverable", an aviation first
But who can blame you for being incurious?
Multiple military wargames and simulations were underway the morning of 9/11
Conspiracy nonsense just isn't your bag.
One simulating the crash of a plane into a building
Now the cat thing, that's important.
Another, a live-fly simulation of multiple hijackings
If your cat doesn't eat his food, he could get a liver condition and die.
Cell phones don't work at 30,000 feet
And once you're done researching cat food, you need to check your email and take out the trash.
George HW Bush and Dick Cheney spent the evening of September 10 alone in the Oval Office
Doesn't mean you're not a skeptic.
George HW Bush and Shafig bin Laden, Osama's brother, spent the morning of September 11 together at a board meeting of the Carlyle Group
You're just not skeptical of the official story of 9/11.

Friday, March 11, 2005

A funny feeling



Sometimes, rarely, I feel like there's a substantially better world just inches away, but inaccessable and nameless. I experience it only in brief flickers.

It has a stillness to it, and an outdoor, summer quality, which is normally not something I would participate in. There's also a sense of experiencing it from the point of view of a child, but that could just be the alienness shining through.

It has a depth to it, is the odd thing, it's just faint. Something about it makes me vaguely uneasy.

None of this really evokes it, although the picture makes an admirable attempt. Either it's an of illusion of peripherial feeling or I'm not skilled enough with my words.

Monday, March 07, 2005

What if people started talking to themselves all the time?




What if it turned out they already do?
[T]he muscles of the face make constant tiny movements [...] much like the tiny movements the eye makes to stay focused on something. But while the patterns traced by the eye form only a random etch-a-sketch of squiggles and curves, the motions of the lips [...] are effectively the same as those made during [conscious] speech.

The monologs rarely form complete sentences even at their most lucid. The most coherent "speech" occurred when subjects were observing a partner in a shared activity. [...]
[...]
4 One subject's lingual saccades had consistent themes of violence. While working together with a researcher on a task in which plastic gears were connected together, his internal monolog contained statements such as "think of all the lives I could be taking instead of dealing with THIS idiot."

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Chess vs. Go



Adam Cadre, host of the Lyttle Lytton contest, has this to say on chess and go:

"I prefer go to chess for two reasons. One is that go feels less arbitrary. Instead of having six different types of pieces, each moving in a different manner and arranged in a fairly arbitrary fashion, go presents the player with a bowl full of identical stones and a very simple set of rules. Players alternate placing stones on the intersections of a grid. Stones or groups of contiguous stones entirely surrounded by stones of the opposite color are removed from the board. Board positions cannot be repeated. When both players pass, points for which all paths along the grid reach only stones of one color or the edge of the board count as territory for the player using that color. That's pretty much it. And from these simple principles comes a game much deeper than chess: computers can now beat the world's best chess players, but the best go programs play on the level of a low-intermediate amateur. So that's one reason. The other is that while chess is a game about destroying things -- pieces are steadily removed, and at the end of the game not much remains -- go is about building: even a player who's lost quite badly will carve out at least a small territory."

I concede that go has a minimalist appeal, but it should be noted that from a mathematical perspective, chess is actually a simpler game. It has a wider variety of pieces, but a far smaller total number, and the chessboard has only 64 squares, in comparison with go's 361 grid intersections.

Second, while it's true that go starts with a blank board and you take turns putting pieces on it, it still takes the form of a conflict, a struggle for control, and the "destructive" nature of chess means it has a decisive ending. I can't help but feel that "checkmate" is more aesthetically satisfying than "time to count up how many squares we control".

Third, the computer thing. Computers ARE worse at go than chess. This is due to two factors. One, go has a board over five times as large, so there's hundreds of possibilities for each move. Two, it's played with a large number of low-value pieces, making it significantly harder to measure who's winning, and consequently making the decision tree harder to prune. If you take 36 chessboards and stitch them together into one big giant game of superchess, humans will be better at it than computers again. Being "deeper" in this sense has essentially nothing to do with whether a game is good.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Gender neutral pronouns

The singular "they" is obviously the most practical solution, yet the grammar people bitch about arbitrary rules and the gender people push for new words like pe and smee which will never be adopted by the general public. Why is everyone so impractical?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Ethics: Threat or menace?



When most people talk about ethics, they mean general guidelines like "avoid nepotism" and "don't steal office supplies". But consider lee harvey oswald, or einstein, or the guy who composed "baby elephant walk". Does anyone give a damn whether they littered or stole office supplies or defended a woman's right to choose or cheated on their sixth grade social studies homework? It's overshadowed by their major impact on the world, and rightly so.

The problem is that most people don't HAVE a major impact, and they don't try to exert one. Instead, they become microscopically focused on the moral repercussions of their tiny decisions about what brand of orange juice to buy.

Maybe it comes down to the idea that someone who lives a marginally good life goes to heaven, and someone who lives a marginally bad one goes to hell. From a consequentialist point of view, such people barely deserve moral recognition at all. The things they did with their lives just don't make any damn difference.

Then again, maybe it's the idea that the world is a delicate balance. That's very appealing to people, for some reason, but it's not really true in most contexts. In the big picture, the world is a runaway train, and making sure that your little glass of orange juice doesn't tip over in the dining car isn't going to stop it.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

I don't think I've met a single person whose system of ethics regarding "intellectual property" was internally consistent



Why is it that no one seems to understand how share ratios work on bittorrent? When yours goes up, mine goes down. When yours goes down, mine goes up. If you multiply everyone's ratio together, it equals 1. ALWAYS. SOME OF THE RATIOS WILL ALWAYS BE GREATER THAN ONE AND SOME OF THEM WILL ALWAYS BE LESS THAN ONE. IT'S NOT BECAUSE PEOPLE ARE EVIL LEECHING SCUMBAGS, IT'S JUST MATH.

Furthermore, share ratios don't even MATTER. It doesn't matter how much you downloaded, only how much you uploaded. Downloading doesn't affect anyone but you. Even if you always download and never upload, it's not as though you're HOARDING THE DATA. It's not as though you have overdue library books. The books are still in the library, you have copies.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Two clever observations that would make good material for a stand up comedy routine



Whenever you call tech support, it resembles a computer game. It's so oppositional! There's very little actual supporting, and a great deal of finding your way through menus, weathering hold music, proving that you're a real customer and that you have a real problem, etc.

If they admit that you actually need and deserve help, and transfer you to their supervisor, you feel like you've fought your way to the end boss.

And if don't remember to save your game (write down your ticket number), you'll have to start all over when you die (get disconnected).

SECOND, UNRELATED OBSERVATION:

When someone lends you something, say a sharpie, you thank them. When you hand it back, they thank you. But what if when you first took it, you forgot to thank them, and when handing it back you thank them in retrospect?

Well, there's no particular problem, unless you both say thanks. Then it's just weird. But why should this be so?

When you take the sharpie marker in the first place and say thanks, that thanks is like an IOU for the marker. When you give the pen back and get thanked, you're even again.

So, when you both say thank you, it's as though you're exchanging fungible substances. It's as though you're giving the hotel manager your keys after you're done with the room, and he hands them right back to you. In fact it's even worse than that, it's like he's handing them to you at the same time. Something has gone wrong, and you have more politeness than you started with. It's not simply an awkward error, it's an error that, in the real world, can't actually occur. And because of this, your politeness-economy modelling system gets confused.

Of course, all of this happens in a fraction of a second, and unless analyzed in this manner it just seems odd in an unusual way that you can't explain, but thankfully don't need to.

BONUS OBSERVATION:

When I went to write the second observation, I realized I had forgotten it. I had no idea what it was, except for a vague sense that it was a gray, inert sort of idea, and double-sided, like a yo-yo. At the time I had no idea what this entailed, it's not as though I consciously code my thoughts this way.

When I forget something like this, that only exists in my mind, I generally just think about it until I remember it, a seemingly hopeless process that as far as I recall has a 100% success rate. In this case I did indeed remember after a few minutes, and it surprised me that my vague visual impression of the idea was not entirely arbitrary.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Theater of the New Ear



I was just listening to a radio play by charlie kaufman. It's mainly the inner monolog of a woman at a play, who's very self-absorbed and has many personal problems. Her cell phone goes off, meryl streep yells at her, she goes on a bus ride in the rain, etc. The radio play ends with a critic breaking the fourth wall and giving it a bad review, and while this is somewhat enjoyable, it's really not enough of a payoff to bother sitting through all the whiny crap for.

What bothers me is that the thing's post-modern claim to fame was basically just self-referentiality and an inventive use of panning to seperate multiple streams of audio, which firesign theater did better, and several decades ago, and managed to be funny at the same time, and top of all THAT, firesign theater had a POINT, for fuck's sake! They actually had something to communicate! Kaufman admits his play is a failure, but I think it's actually a much bigger failure than he realizes.

Monday, December 27, 2004

What is art?



"Art" refers to two categories, one more specific than the other.

1. Things made with creative skill and imagination

2. Things made with creative skill and imagination which are beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance

All arguments about "what art is" stem from incomprehension of this very simple fact.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Big Empty



They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I think it's a fairly good bet that I won't find anything worth reading in "kiss tomorrow hello - notes from the midlife underground by twenty-five women over forty".

I meant to write something regarding things that norman mailer said, but now it's hard to recapture the feeling that they're even worth responding to. While reading a book, it feels like the real world is important, but as soon as I pull out my laptop and illegally connect to "happynet", a wireless network that extends into the corner of the bookstore, norman mailer seems irrelevent.

Here's a thing from an article someone once printed out and gave me, from the new yorker:

Converse claimed that only around ten per cent of the public has what can be called, even generously, a political belief system. He named these people “ideologues,” by which he meant not that they are fanatics but that they have a reasonable grasp of “what goes with what”—of how a set of opinions adds up to a coherent political philosophy. Non-ideologues may use terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” but Converse thought that they basically don’t know what they’re talking about, and that their beliefs are characterized by what he termed a lack of “constraint”: they can’t see how one opinion (that taxes should be lower, for example) logically ought to rule out other opinions (such as the belief that there should be more government programs). About forty-two per cent of voters, according to Converse’s interpretation of surveys of the 1956 electorate, vote on the basis not of ideology but of perceived self-interest. The rest form political preferences either from their sense of whether times are good or bad (about twenty-five per cent) or from factors that have no discernible “issue content” whatever. Converse put twenty-two per cent of the electorate in this last category. In other words, about twice as many people have no political views as have a coherent political belief system.

Just because someone’s opinions don’t square with what a political scientist recognizes as a political ideology doesn’t mean that those opinions aren’t coherent by the lights of some more personal system of beliefs. But Converse found reason to doubt this possibility. When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one. Their answer is duly recorded, and it becomes a datum in a report on “public opinion.” But, after analyzing the results of surveys conducted over time, in which people tended to give different and randomly inconsistent answers to the same questions, Converse concluded that “very substantial portions of the public” hold opinions that are essentially meaningless—off-the-top-of-the-head responses to questions they have never thought about, derived from no underlying set of principles. These people might as well base their political choices on the weather. And, in fact, many of them do.

Findings about the influence of the weather on voter behavior are among the many surveys and studies that confirm Converse’s sense of the inattention of the American electorate. In election years from 1952 to 2000, when people were asked whether they cared who won the Presidential election, between twenty-two and forty-four per cent answered “don’t care” or “don’t know.” In 2000, eighteen per cent said that they decided which Presidential candidate to vote for only in the last two weeks of the campaign; five per cent, enough to swing most elections, decided the day they voted.

Seventy per cent of Americans cannot name their senators or their congressman. Forty-nine per cent believe that the President has the power to suspend the Constitution. Only about thirty per cent name an issue when they explain why they voted the way they did, and only a fifth hold consistent opinions on issues over time.