Tag: human condition


Provocation and adaptation

June 23rd, 2010 — 5:22pm

My last post, on the topic of resisting the circumstances in life, ended with a question. What choices should I make to resist maximally, given that choices make me stronger, i.e. choices have long term side effects on me?

So I would like to, probabilistically, maximise my set of skills in order to best be able to achieve some kind of ambition I have set for myself. Cutting off my hand will probably not help me, but learning arabic might. Being in a car crash is unlikely to be helpful, but being a marathon runner could conceivably be useful. Both involve pain, but one causes irreversible damage, the other causes an increase of strength if done properly. What is the ideal form of schooling for children (If we take the unlikely view that the purpose of schools is teaching things)? That which increases their ability the fastest, which is to say, the most difficult knowledge, the fastest speed of teaching that they can possibly cope with. The maximum trajectory that they can sustain without losing the grip or their interest in the subject.

Should I do the same in life, then? Probably, but it gets tricky, because life experiences that promise to teach me a lot are often unfamiliar, or dangerous, or otherwise involve pain. As we have seen, it is not the case that pain equals learning, but pain can be strongly correlated with learning. To be more precise: if I become crippled in a car crash, or by cutting off my hand, it is because I received stimuli from directions and with intensities that I could not withstand. Provoke me at a slowly building rate, and I will learn to deal with the provocations and perhaps bite back. Provoke me really hard and really fast from the start, and I will die. And then there are provocation vectors to which individuals cannot adapt in a single generation, for instance, drowning. Species might adapt to this kind of threat over several generations. Is not life precisely that which adapts to changing circumstances, potentials and provocations, in particular potential threats or benefits? But intelligent animals, like humans, are a special form of life. We can select what experiences to undergo, and thus what training to receive. This is how we can consciously adapt in advance when we expect a difficult situation. (Young animals play in order to train themselves for adult behaviour, but this kind of training has been conditioned by evolution over many generations. Are there any animals that train selectively to face threats that they have identified during the same generation, like humans do?)

If I identify the maximum “provocation rate” that I am able to withstand concerning a particular skill, another problem I would want to solve is: do skills compete? If I learn Arabic very well, will it downgrade my Russian? If I become a marathon runner, will it disrupt my ballet dancing ability? When a skill involves a particular conditioning of the body and the muscles, it is probably easy to see that some skills conflict. When they involve a conditioning of the mind, it is less obvious. Is the mind flexible enough to support radically opposed skills and viewpoints at the same time? Is this property the same or different for different people?
Questions that lead to more questions.

Comment » | Philosophy

Resisting circumstances

June 21st, 2010 — 7:55pm

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said that “what does not kill me, makes me stronger.” While true in some ways, this statement appears to be a generalisation masking a more complex truth. For instance, cutting off one’s hand does not kill one, but hardly makes one stronger, unless one specifically desired greatly improved dexterity of the other hand, even at a very high cost.

It is a fact that we cannot predict all the circumstances that we will find ourselves in throughout our lives. So we cannot predict what skills or strengths we will need either. Any one who has some kind of ambition in life has no way of establishing completely beyond doubt that their ambition will come true. They can only work towards reducing uncertainty.

At this point a number of different attitudes emerge. One could take the view that “Life is nothing but suffering. We must learn to cope with it.” Subsequently one could teach that suffering is a thing in the mind, and that training the mind to absorb suffering without feeling pain or becoming upset is our best hope. Either that, or reduce the ambitions so as to be frustrated less often. The goal of this ambition reduction is zero ambition, zero desires and zero expectations. With this mindset, you can never be let down. Nullified resistance, maximum fluidity.

Another view: life presents us with challenges, some of which we may overcome, some of which it is pointless to even try overcoming. A “pragmatist” view that tries to establish a middle ground. Some suffering is worth resisting, some is too much. People taking this view have some degree of resistance, but also a breaking point at which they would accept that “life is hard” and bend according to the circumstances of fate. Maybe they would also be opportunist and take their chances for easy gains when they can, to get revenge on life.

And finally, let’s look at the other extreme view. Nietzsche also said, perhaps slightly less famously, that “only to the extent that man has resisted, has he lived.” If I take this view, that I should resist adverse circumstances maximally and have my way in life, I must handle the problem mentioned at the beginning of this post — I cannot predict the circumstances that will befall me. No matter how strong I am, it is likely that there will be some set of circumstances that might destroy my aims completely, and me in the process. But let’s say that I take the view that some outcomes are less likely than others. I buy into some form of probability, for instance I think that five dice are less likely to all have the number four facing up than they are to not end up in this configuration. What choices should I make to maximise my ability to resist, given that some choices actually do make me stronger?

1 comment » | Philosophy

On statefulness

June 15th, 2010 — 9:52pm

Last year I made some attempts at free association around formal languages and state machines. But at that time, not much was said about the idea of a state itself; an idea which I think holds a lot of interesting uncharted territory.

To begin with, what is state really? Intuitively the word distinguishes states of an object. The key here is the plurality. A single state in itself is uninteresting. Only as contrasted with another state does the first state acquire meaning. This leads us to an interpretation: states are a way of grouping all the possible forms-of-existence, for want of a better word, that an object has, which lets us make sense of such forms more easily.

To exemplify: the light switch in my apartment can be on or off. But in physical space, the plastic switch can occupy a very large number of positions between one and zero. However, the spring mechanism forces the switch into the first state or the second state as soon as I release my finger from it, giving rise to two distinct functional states. When I was a kid, I would sometimes play with the rather old light switches in my parents’ house by keeping the switch in the middle between on and off. A humming sound would be emitted, and the lights would flicker on and off. Surely not a very good thing for the fittings, and potentially dangerous, but interesting since this broke down the abstraction – the continuum behind the discrete was exposed.

So given a physical system, then, which remains the same system even as some parts move around, electrical currents flow, etc, we use states to partition all the forms of existence of that system into meaningful ideas. “The door is open/closed”, “The engine is turned on/off”, “The engine is turned on but there’s almost no fuel left”, and so on. States have probably been with us as long as we have been able to think of binary distinctions, which is to say throughout the history of mankind – opposites such as day/night and alive/dead must have been with the human mind from prelinguistic times.

Today, states are an essential way of turning the unmanageable analog realm into a finite, subjugated digital representation.

Comment » | Computer science, Philosophy

The aesthetics of technology

May 18th, 2010 — 11:20pm

Different technologies have different kinds of aesthetics, and they affect us in various ways, whether we are particularly fascinated with technology or not.

The easiest technologies to understand on an intuitive-emotional basis seem to be those that involve physical processes. Objects rotating, moving, being lifted and displaced, compressed, crushed. Gases and liquids being sent around in conduits, mediating force and energy. In short, the technology that has its foundation in classical mechanics.

If these are easy to get a feel for, it would probably be in part because an understanding of mechanical processes has been of use to us throughout history, and also before the advent of civilisation. An intuitive understanding of things such as momentum, acceleration, gravity has no doubt benefited mankind and its ancestors for a very long time.

It gets trickier when we get to the more recent technologies. Take electricity to be an arbitrary watershed. We have no intuitive idea of what electricity is, apart from the fact we might be afraid of thunder. Electricity has to be taught through the abstract idea of electrons flowing in conduits, a bit like water in pipes (to name one of many images being used).

And then there’s analog and digital electronics, integrated circuits, semiconductors and so on, where intuition has long ago been left behind. We are forced to approach these things in a purely abstract domain.

Yet, when our Mp3 players, game consoles, mobile phones and computers do things for us, we are left with a sense of wonder. Our minds, always looking for stories and explanations, want to associate the impressive effects produced by these devices with some stimuli. With a steam engine, it’s easy to associate the energy with pressure, heat and motion, all of which are well understood on a low level. With a mobile phone, not so much. A lot of very abstract stories have to be used in order to reach anything that resembles an explanation, and still it doesn’t reach the essence of the device, which might be in its interplay between radio transceivers, sound codec chips, a display with a user interface and software to drive it, a central CPU, and so on, together with, of course, the network of physical antennas and their connectivity with other such networks. Is it too much to suppose that the human mind often stops short of the true explanation here? That we associate the effects produced by the device with what we can touch, smell, see and hear?

This is of course the point where many computer geeks worldwide start to feel a certain affection for the materials that make up the machines. Suppose that we are in the 1980’s. Green text on a black terminal background. A particular kind of fixed width font. The clicking of the keyboard. The dull grey plastic used to make the case. All of these things can acquire a lot of meaning that they don’t really have, because the users lack a window (physical and emotional) into the essence of the machine. The ultimate “disconnected machine”, to relate to my field, is software.

This brings up questions such as: how far can we as a species proceed with technology that we cannot understand instinctively, how can we teach such technology meaningfully and include it in democratic debate, and how can we use people’s tendencies to associate sensory stimuli with meaning and effects in a more meaningful way? – for instance, when we design hardware and software interfaces.

2 comments » | Philosophy, Software development

Overloading words in research and programming

March 11th, 2010 — 3:16pm

In research and academia, one of the fundamental activities is the invention and subsequent examination of new concepts. For concepts, we need names.

One way of making a name is stringing words together until the meaning is sufficiently specific. E.g. “morphism averse co-dependent functor substitutions in virtual machine transmigration systems”. Thus the abstruse academic research paper title is born.

Sciences sometimes give new meanings to existing words. This could be called overloading, following the example of object-oriented programming. E.g. a “group” in mathematics is something different from the everyday use of the term. A “buffer” in chemistry is something different from a software or hardware buffer, even though a fragment of similarity is there. And so on. This overloading of words gives newcomers to the field a handle on what is meant, but full understanding is still impossible without understanding the actual definitions being employed.

Sometimes new terms can be created using inventors’ names and everyday words. E.g. a “Lie group” or the “Maxwell equations”, or “Curry-Howard correspondence”. This is potentially useful, but perhaps not something you can do freely with your own research without seeming like you’re trying to inflate your ego excessively. (Even though researchers love inflating their egos, nobody wants to admit it.)

There’s a similar problem in software development. When we invent names of functions, classes and variables, the lack of words becomes very clear. Intuitively, what is an “adapter registry”? An “observer list”? Or an “observer list mediation adapter?” My feeling is that we often end up compounding abstract words because we have no better choice. And here lies a clue to some of the apparent impermeability of difficult source code. We need better ways of making names. We’re inventing ideas faster than our language can stretch.

Comment » | Philosophy, Software development

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