Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Too Much Information

Jock Itch.

Toe Fungus.


I'm generally a believer in Knowledge Is Good. In fact, I used to believe that one could never know too much.

But I've started to rethink that. It's possible to have Too Much Information (or 'TMI' as it's known among the cognoscenti).

Aside from the social faux pax kind of "TMI" (ie, the person you just met at a party telling you about her vaginal yeast infection and how she mistook the Monostat 7 tube for her toothpaste), there is a new kind of TMI in the world. The inundation of data that comes with the World Wide Web.

As the World Wide Wacky Web started to grow, so did the recognition of the growth of this new form of TMI, till today there are even blogs that are about TMI.

I spent days recently just clicking through web sites found via StumbleUpon, a service that tries to hook you up with web sites you never knew existed but (supposedly) wished you did. Unlike some of the other Random Website generators out there, StumbleUpon tries to discover which sites you like and don't like, then tries to hook you up with sites that meet your affinities.

The more you use it, the more it finds sites that you find interesting. Which makes you use it more, in a vicious cycle of ever deeper sinkholes of time.

Until you reach saturation. Until you finally receive Too Much Information. (Or until you need to eat or sleep).

Try some. Just one hit. It won't hurt you...

Monday, April 25, 2005

God's Children - complete

I had to do some rewriting of prior chapters to get the discussion at the end closer to what I wanted. The ending still needs some work, but the original idea is basically done.

Here's a complete version.

God's Children
Mike McCown

“Lemme lookit yer eyes,” said the fossil in front of me.

Like you can tell anything from looking at these old lens sacks, I thought. I was still pretty pissed that I had to be retrofitted almost entirely with organics for this mission. I kept trying to press the mental switch that would expand my visual range into the infrared so I could scope out the dark corners of the warehouse’s open floor, with the same result every time – nothing. In fact, ever since they brought me back to full consciousness back at headquarters, I’d been worrying all my old mental control commands like a missing tooth, with just as much satisfaction.

The old man looked skinny and frail, but as he gripped my chin to tilt my head up toward the light, his claws were vice grips that had me clamped tight. He peered his rheumy eyes into mine, looking for some secret sign that I guess only these old nuts felt they could see. I stared back down at him, attempting a subtle blend of dreamy righteousness that I saw in the eyes of all of God’s Children. (That was what we called them. They called themselves “human”, and most of what they called us doesn’t bear repeating in polite company).

“C’mon Josh, I tol’ ya – he’s clean. Charity vouched for ‘im,” said my tour guide for the evening, Judith. Judith was your classic corn-fed midwestern girl, wholesome and curved, bordering on plump, with dark puppy dog eyes and freckles. Charity (or Delilah as she liked to call herself when she wasn’t under deep cover, as she had been for almost ten years now in her “Charity” role) had introduced me to Judith at the church service earlier this evening as her dear friend from the southern continent. The Church was still strong in some areas of the south, despite the seemingly inevitable march of the post-humanist movement.

“Ehhh – there’s somethin’ ain’t right,” Josh scowled. “I don’t like him.”
“You don’t like anyone,” Judith pouted.

“Don’t sass me girl – that’s the path to wickedness,” Josh snapped back distractedly, his attention still on me like a hawk who’d just spotted a flash of movement on the ground, waiting for the critter to move again and reveal its location long enough to be tonight’s meal. “Take Mr. Martinez down to the lab and run the scan.”

“There ain’t time! Charity said to have him back before midnight!” Judith complained.

“Charity don’t be givin’ the orders round here, now, do she?” Josh finally let me out of his grip and turned to Judith. “You just do as I tol’ ya. Pretend yer still the good girl ya use ta be when you was little.” Josh stared at her a second longer, then dismissed her with his eyes and turned back to me.

“Don’ you be thinkin’ of pullin’ any of yer tricks, now. We got ways a handlin’ yer kinda tricks.”

I stared back, this time trying for a subtle blend of dreamy righteousness and righteous indignation. “No disrespect intended, Elder, but I don’t need this. I have other flocks that actually want my help, and I think I’d prefer to spend my time with them, if you don’t mind.”

Josh stared at me for a bit with an expression I couldn’t read. (It doesn’t help to be half blind, unable to see skin temp, perspiration, respiration rate, and other give away physiological signs that normally my augments read and synthesize without my giving it a second thought. All because the AIs thought that the Children might be able to tell the difference, even though they never had been able to before).

He let his shoulders down, and appeared to soften a bit. Seemed to shrink a bit in the process – he’d seemed a lot taller a minute ago. “Now, now, son, don’t be so prickly. Don’t yer folk back home run the borgs through a scan? Don’ mean nuthin’ by it – just a normal percaution.” He paused, then looked at me slantways. “Yer not scared a the scan, are ya?” I could swear he was hoping for me to say yes, or run out of the room, or something to justify his irrational suspicion.

“Scared? No. Annoyed a little, I guess. I’m tired from the trip up here, and like Judith said, Charity wants me back before midnight.”

“Dontchyu worry none, son – we’ll have ya back before you turn into a pumpkin.” He cackled at some private joke, then turned and skittered away.

“Don’ mind him,” Judith said, touching my arm. “He’s been crotchety ever since I knew him. And since that metal head got into the sanctuary cross town last month, everyone’s being extra careful.”

Polymer composite nanofibers aren’t metal, I thought, and that “metal head” was a friend of mine, an agent named Wyatt. I decided it would probably not enhance the odds of mission success if I were to correct her, even though I was slightly peeved – Wyatt had gone in, just as I had, and we hadn’t heard from him since. I wasn’t worried – not really, since there wasn’t much these people could really do to us, not permanently anyway – but it was still unusual for him to be out of contact for so many weeks.

I followed Judith to the back of the warehouse where a big freight elevator stood open. “You’ll protect me, won’t you Judith?” I said as we climbed in and Judith pressed the big green button to start the decent. Judith gave a quick glance over at me with her deer in the headlights look, not sure if I was making a joke or not. To cover her nervousness, she started to explain their system.

“The elevator is the only way down to the sanctuary – we filled up all the other stairwells and stuff with cement. This thing makes a lot of noise, so we can tell if someone unexpected is coming and cut of the power, leaving them hanging here till we decide what to do with them.”

Judith, Judith, I thought, don’t you know that any underground facility needs ventilation? There were about a half dozen places where we could slip some remotes down to your fortress of solitude, if we cared to listen in on your superstitious incantations. Those same remotes could listen, incapacitate, or even kill if need be – although the need hardly ever did be. Mostly, we just tried to keep the fanatics from hurting us and others until they caught up with the world of progress, or at least long enough for one generation to die off so the next one might have a chance of doing so. They made their lives miserable enough without us having to add to their pain.

Still, remotes only went so far, and there were protected areas in this sanctum that fried any of the remotes that tried to get close. Since the remotes turned into a fine black dust when disabled, it wasn’t likely that they knew we were watching. But if we wanted to get any more information, it would take getting someone on the inside. Tonight, that someone was me.

The elevator was still descending, and I realized with some annoyance that I had no idea how far down we had come. No intertial navigation routines were working because their normal sensor sources were stubbed out. A few of my deep secondary processors were available, but I didn’t have any modeling data to feed them – it felt like half my brain was asleep. Probably because it was. Wyatt must be going nuts, I suddenly thought, if he’s had to endure this lobotomized state for almost a month.

We finally hit bottom, and Judith led me down a maze of twisty passages that all looked alike till we came to a brightly lit facility in the middle of this Orc lair. I had only catalogued three people on the way here – not such a great haul so far for all the trouble I’d gone through to get here.

Oh well, I thought, let’s get me through whatever ancient metal detector or x-ray you use as an excuse for a scanner. Judith gave me an “after you” gesture, and I stepped into the room.

And then stopped. And then caught myself from falling as Judith bumped into my suddenly stilled form blocking the doorway. I turned to grab her to keep her from falling as well, and we both ended up tumbling to the ground, with me breaking her fall.

Which wasn’t a bad strategy, because it allowed me a second to fire up my secondaries for some rapid modeling, because I needed to figure out a way out of here, fast.

Even without my main processors, the secondaries could do a fair job of modeling potential scenarios and outcomes, and do it fast enough that at least something resembling slow-time was available. Our processors are each like a dozen brains themselves – each one not as broadly capable as our organic brain, but specialized for data retrieval and simulation to model current situations from available data and then rapidly run dozens of simulations in parallel, evaluating the outcomes for optimum solutions.

The effect in my head was like I was seeing a vision of the future unfolding, the one that gave me the best chance at accomplishing whatever I had set as my goal. This vision could represent minutes, or even hours, of predicted events and is presented in the span of a second, which made the real world around me appear to be marching in slow motion for a bit – slow-time. This internal cinema manifested itself externally as a slightly distracted look, like when you’re trying to remember something. Depending on the speed of the simulation, you could use a lot of internal energy, so it wasn’t something you could run constantly – not unless you had a glucose IV drip handy.

What my modeling showed was that the glimpse of the machine I saw when coming into the room was very likely an old MRI of some kind – it still had one of those massive magnets in a doughnut around a flat table. MRI, as in magnetic resonance – as in, possibly able to identify the few polymer nanofibers remaining in my secondaries as a separate compound from the organic neural fibers in my head.

As in, able to detect a “metal head” – me.

The modeling also identified a potential path out of this trap, but the probabilities weren’t in the range that got me excited about my success. But hey, there's statistics, and then there's luck, and even with low odds some people do win the lottery.

“Oof!” Letting out a strong groan, I curled up and brought one hand to my groin.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!” Judith exclaimed, and scrambled up. “Oh gosh, are you okay?” She reached out to help me up, then pulled her hand back like I was a dangerous flame, then brought her hands to her mouth. “Oh my gosh. Doc!” she turned to the man in the corner of the room.

As “Doc” started to come over, I rolled onto my knees, panted a bit, then gasped out “I’ll be okay. I think.” I took a breath, held it, then let it out slowly and glanced up at Judith and Doc. “Is there maybe a bathroom I could use for a minute?” I said with a weak grin.

“Yeah, sure. Just down the hall. Let me show you.” Judith looked mortified, and Doc was just standing there with a suppressed grin.

I slowly climbed to my feet, and shuffled out the door. “Down here?” I said, pointing back the way we came.

“No, the other way. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’ll live. Be back in just a minute, okay?”

“Sure. No problem. I’m really sorry.”

I gave her a brief smile, then limped down the hall to the bathroom. I glanced back, and saw that the Doc was giving Judith some teasing about “groveling on the floor with some stranger”, so I quickly doubled back and started to replay the route back out of here. I wasn’t really hurt – the simulation allowed me to figure out just how to position myself during the fall to cause the intended result but minimize the actual damage.

I was thinking about next steps – getting back up topside, possibly having to talk my way past the old man (another short model run during the elevator ascent should help figure that one out), and although the mission was a bust, I was starting to feel pretty good about getting the data back to HQ about how they were detecting our agents.

Then the lights went out.

Or at least it appeared that way. I found myself lying on the ground, every muscle just started to relax from a knotting spasm, and seeing the old man – Joshua – walking toward me with the wires dangling down from a taser in his hand.

“Don’t worry, son – just makin’ sure you don’t turn into a pumpkin on us…” Then, the lights went out again.


When I woke up, I was lying strapped to the MRI table. A quick test of the straps showed them to be more than adequate for my no longer augmented muscles. In fact, they appeared to be a composite polymer that would have been a challenge even for my augs. I guess they’d had some experience with what our augs could do.

“Oh good – you’re back,” said a somewhat familiar voice. “I was hoping we could chat a bit while we map out your particular modifications.”

Although my head was strapped down as well, I could start to see Joshua coming into my peripheral vision. “A chat sounds great,” I said. “How about bringing in a couple cervesas and some pretzels so we can have a nice chat.”

“Hmm, that does sound good. Maybe it a bit, once we’ve put you in a less aggressive frame of mind.” Joshua pulled up a chair next to the table.

“What happened to the hick accent?” I asked.

“No need to lower your expectations any more, Mr. Morales. There need be no more lies between us.”

I knew then that things had really gone to shit. He knew my real name, and apparently knew enough about how we worked to set me up and take me down. Maybe I could play for time, and past midnight Delilah would start trying to track me down.

“Okay, you clearly know a lot about me. Why don’t you tell me a little about yourself, and what you hope to gain by keeping me here?”

“I hope to heal you, Mr. Morales. I hope to help you restore your soul.”

Great. “Okay, Dr. Mengele, do your worst.”

“I’m not the evil Nazi here, Mr. Morales. It’s your kind that perform the unnatural experiments on human kind. It’s you that have been gorging on the forbidden fruit and can no longer hear the Word.”

“What word would that be? ‘Luddite?’ Perhaps, ‘Murderer?’”

“We aren’t the murderers. We are the saviours, trying to restore the souls that your people suck out. “

“Oh really. Tell that to the agents you’ve killed. Tell that to all the people that died in that clinic bombing last month. Tell that to your children who die because you refuse to let them get treatment for their terminal diseases.”

“The fate of our children is up to God to decide, not you!” He paused and collected himself. “The clinic bombing was unfortunate. Some of our flock get extremely agitated knowing the serpent is in their midst, and sometimes get carried away in their efforts to do God’s will.”

“Is it your God’s will that you hold such hate for other humans?”

“You’re not human,” he hissed, then calmed again and said “besides, we don’t hate you. We’re sorry for you. And God wants us to try to save you, for the sake of your soul.”

I rolled my eyes.

“We are instruments of God, working against the agents of Satan that are trying to take the mantle of God’s powers unto themselves. Even the name you call yourselves, “Post-humans”, demonstrates that you don’t consider yourselves to be truly human anymore. You attempt to play at God’s work, modifying the natural form and abilities that God gave you. We merely work to restore the natural order, the order God intended.”

Yes, we call ourselves post-humans (or sometimes “The Real Moral Majority”, since we felt we were morally superior to the poor humans who were still mired in their superstitions and religious dogma). But trying to have an intelligent conversation with this crackpot would be a waste of breath. And I wasn’t sure how many breaths I had left, given my situation.

I heard someone enter the room. Judith’s voice said, “Charity’s on the line – she’s wondering when the tin man here is comin’ back.”

“Charity…yes, our dear sweet Charity. Who vouched for our inhuman guest here, didn’t she? Yes…tell her that Mr. Morales – I mean Mr. Martinez - said that she should come down here to pick him up, that he was too 'damned' tired to walk back.” He stood over me and said in a low voice. “Aren’t you, Mr. Toaster? Damned, I mean. But we can fix that.”

He started to fiddle with the keyboard again, and while he was occupied I used some reserves to fire up my secondaries again to run a couple models. One, whether or not Delilah was stupid enough to fall for such an obvious trap (she had been without her augs for nearly a decade now – that can tend to dumb you down). Two, to pick up the problem of how to get out of this mess. I started to shift into slow time, when suddenly my brain exploded.


I’d never had my brain explode before, so my experience was somewhat limited on the subject, but it certainly felt like how I imagined an exploding brain would feel. Blinding light, killing pain, the dissolution of conscious thought.

Turns out it was merely the destruction of the rest of my secondaries. I don’t recommend the experience. Supposedly they have safeties built in that should shut them down into safe mode in the event of any external adverse event that might cause a failure, but I guess I’ll need to take that up false claim with the manufacturer.

It was becoming quite clear to me, even with my slow, stupid, plain old organic brain, that these guys were a lot more sophisticated that I, or the AIs, had given them credit for. And that I might be in a bit of a pickle. And that this time, I might not be able to think my way out of it.

I woke some undetermined time later, internal clock offline. I felt wrapped in a cocoon, everything muffled, dampened. All senses were so narrow - visuals only between the infrared and UV, no zoom, no overlays; tinny sound only from 20-20KHz; smells were vague, food-like, with no identification of component molecules. No memory to speak of. And no secondaries, no modeling or slow-time.

Not even our newborns were this deaf, dumb, and blind anymore.

Joshua came into focus sitting next to my bed. He had a smug look on his face. “You’re a lucky man, Mr. Morales. It’s not every man who has a chance at redemption. God can restore the soul of even a sinner like you.”

I glared, but inside I was scared. This wasn’t a feeling I was used to – usually the emotional adjustment from the augs kicked in before any strong emotion rose to conscious level.

I felt claustrophobic, trapped. Trapped here underground. Trapped in my own skull, with the walls closing in.

A memory of my grandmother came unbidden. As a child, I watched this vibrant, active woman first bed ridden with spinal disk problems. Then came the macular degeneration, leaving her only a remnant of peripheral vision, robbing her of her books and television to pass the time. Then came her stroke, and with it the Broca’s aphasia. The partial loss in her left frontal lobe removed her ability to speak in anything other than one or two word exclamations, partial paralysis of her right side removed her ability to write her thoughts.

Cruelly, the stroke did not remove her cognitive abilities to think or remember. It did nothing but trap her, the rest of her mind intact, in a body that could no longer see or communicate.

Death, now something that only happens to us by accident, would have been a comfort had it not taken years longer to come.

First sadness, then rage came over me. Distantly, I wondered at the lack of emotional regulation – gone now too. The rage became all consuming. Not me, I thought. The fate of my grandmother will not happen to me. I will not allow it!

“You’ll find in time that you mind has quieted enough to hear the voice of God again, if you open yourself to him. For many, the path back to righteousness can be a very long road, but with the guidance of our brethren, we know that eventually some of you will be saved.”

As he spoke, and I smoldered, a curious thing happened. I found that my hand was holding a scalpel. How it got there I had no idea. Even stranger, I knew that the taser the old man had used, or one just like it, was in a cabinet just outside this room. It could have just been wishful thinking, but it didn’t seem like it. I knew.
I started to speak, croaked, and tried to clear my throat, then tried again.

“Eh? What’s that?” Josh leaned closer to hear me.

I quickly grabbed his hair and brought the scalpel out from under the sheet to touch his throat. “I said,” whispered into his face, inches from mine, “maybe I should open you up to your god instead.”

I’ll give him this – he didn’t appear scared. He calmly looked at me and said, “I’m not afraid to meet my Maker. I know he has a place prepared for me, and it has always been his to decide my time to go.” It almost appeared like he was eager for me to cut his throat.

“I figure you should stick around this hell on earth a bit longer, then,” I said, and gave him a quick blow to the base of the skull. Something that should keep him out for at least a half hour, and give him a nasty headache as some instant karma for the one he’d given me.

I got up and looked out the door. No one. I ran over to the cabinet (I’ll be damned, right where I’d imagined it), and sure enough, there was a taser. I started running up the hall.

At each junction, I had a strong feeling which way to turn. I figured I’d go with the feeling, since I didn’t have anything solid to guide me. In a short period of time, I was at the freight elevator. One guard, one quick use of the taser, and I started up.

I managed to make it to the warehouse without them shutting down the elevator. I’ve always said, I’d rather be lucky that good – luck will get you out of situations that no amount of being good will. I’d probably used up my annual allotment of luck getting out so far – better lay off the lottery tickets for a while.

And of course, just as I thought this, my luck ran out. The door at the end of the warehouse started to open, and there was no place to hide.

So I ran full speed toward whoever was entering on the hope that I’d startle them long enough to do something about them. As a foot crossed the threshold, I was about ten feet away, so I screamed my best bloodcurdling freak-em-out shriek and jumped at them.

Unfortunately, ten feet is a bit far to jump without augs.

As I landed about five feet short of the door, I heard “And a howdy-do to you too, Eligio.” A grinning Delilah (Charity) followed the greeting through the doorway and managed to stop my momentum with a bear hug. “Now if you’re done playing whooping warrior, let’s get out of here.”

We ran out of the warehouse, and I felt inward for the fury that had driven me earlier. It was dampened, but still there. Delilah had a car about a block down, and we hopped in and scooted back toward headquarters.

“Glad to see your new augs are working all right,” Delilah beamed at me from the drivers seat.

“Watch the road, okay? I almost died once tonight, I’m not anxious to see if I can cheat death twice in an hour.” I sat for a second. “What new augs?”

She looked back at the road. “We placed some new tech wetware in your secondary visual pathways.”

“What the hell is a secondary visual pathway?”

Delilah looked at me again with a curious smile. “You really should pay attention in the pre-op briefs, Gio. You might actually learn something.”

“I probably did, O Wise One, but it got torched along with the rest of my useful memory augs.”

She looked startled, then embarrassed. “You’re probably right, dear. Sorry to be so insensitive. Is it bad?”

“It’s not high on my list of experiences to do again before I die.”

Delilah paused, focused on the road. “Okay, here’s the refresher. Our brains have two visual pathways – the ‘new’ one that goes to our visual cortex, and an ‘old’ evolutionary holdover that goes down into the brain stem. You’re not consciously aware of images processed by the old pathway, but you can still ‘see’ things that way, and parts of your brain can be made aware of that information and act on them.”
“I was out of it, but it still seemed like I knew things I don’t remember seeing. It’s like I was sleepwalking my way out of there.”

“In a way you were. It’s called ‘blindsight’, and what you have is a very augmented version. The AIs were afraid that the GC’s might have a way of detecting and perhaps disabling our normal aug tech, so in addition to removing your normal augs, they recommended putting in some augs using a new technique – secondary processors grown from your own neural tissue, but with a dramatically denser neuron profile.”

“So I have a new brain in my brain?”

“A few of them, actually. Not much is known about how they’ll behave – they’re not as specialized as our usual augs, and they’re placed in the more ancient part of the brain, deep in the superior colliculus, not in the neocortex where we usually place our augs. Apparently they did okay, since I didn’t have to come very far in there to save your sorry ass.”

“I was getting my sorry ass out of there just fine, thank you.” I remembered the feeling of knowing things that I could only have seen while unconscious. I guess the grab of the scalpel, the “seeing” of where they put the taser – all the fine work of my enhanced “blindsight.”

I was a little disturbed that they would place experimental augs in me without my permission. But maybe I just didn’t remember giving permission – I did just have some of my secondary memories fried. And I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

“I didn’t get very much from the mission, though,” I said ruefully.

“You may have gotten more than you know. We’ll try to do a dump from your secondaries when we get back.”

I spent most of the rest of the trip back in silence. And I mean silence – no sensors, no secondaries, no augs (that I could consciously interact with anyway). I was still feeling strongly emotional, and a bit disturbed. I had the odd thought that something was wrong, and while I didn’t hear the voice of Josh’s God, I couldn’t help but feel that something inside was trying to warn me.


We arrived back at HQ, and Delilah trundled me down to medical to see if they could pull any data out of my burned out secondaries. The other “wetware” augs that Delilah told me about would probably have a lot of info too, but were apparently too new to have a reliable retrieval interface available yet. But they gave that a whirl as well.

And apparently they got enough. While I was washing up, Delilah came my to give me a dump.

“We got what we needed, Gio.” She handed me a cappuccino. It smelled wonderful. I knew that the day I didn’t take pleasure in a good cup of java would be the day I truly was no longer human.

“The visuals should be enough to arrest and convict most of the key leaders of this group. They’ve been the most advanced and active of the GC movement, and putting a stop to them will save a lot of people a lot of grief.”

I thought about Josh, about how he tried to “save” me in his misguided way, but how he really didn’t appear to want to truly hurt me. “What are they going to do to them?”

Delilah’s eyes lit up. “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but by tomorrow you’ll probably hear about it anyway.” She looked around to make sure we were alone. “We’re going to cure them!”

“Of what? Religion?”

“Yes, exactly!”

I couldn’t fathom what she was talking about.

“Gio, do you know why humans are religious?”

I thought about it. “I imagine it’s historically been a good way to explain the unexplainable, as well as to comfort the inevitability of death.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s all true. But what do you suppose it is that allows some people to be pretty secular in their beliefs, and many of those who claim to be religious to be pretty relaxed in their observance of the rules and dogma, but some, like God’s Children, to be extremely fanatical in their beliefs, in the face of all logic and reason?”

“I guess that’s just human nature – it takes all kinds.”

“You’ve got it, kind of. It is nature – natural evolution, anyway. Religion came into being somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, about the same time as consciousness. Both derive from the same mental systems.”

She went on to explain. “The ability to model the actions of others evolved because those that could predict to some degree how another individual might behave could survive better than those who couldn’t. Over time, this modeling ability grew more sophisticated, allowing the ability to model internal motivation that drives outward behavior.”

“Once the ability to model internal motivation was available, the ability to model our own internal motivation, and predict what we might do given different scenarios, quickly came into play. In fact, this is the root of what we call consciousness – the ability to model what we’re thinking, and the ‘awareness’ or model of this model.”

“A side effect of this model of models capability to explain and anticipate behavior is that it doesn’t just kick in when we have enough valid data to produce a valid model. These portions of the brain are running all the time, just like all the other areas of the brain. And when there’s a dearth of facts with which to develop a model, the brain will develop a model anyway.“

“Sometimes the cause and effect are obvious enough to produce a practical model. When they’re not, you get a model that ascribes effects to 'mysterious' or supernatural causes. In other words, sickness is caused by unseen demons; lightning is caused by angry gods; unconscious feelings that drive a behavior are God’s will.”

I interrupted her lecture. “So with consciousness, or our 'soul', came God? Usually people think of it the other way around.”

“That’s just another example. We have consciousness. Where did it come from? How do we model the source of consciousness, or our ‘soul’ as you say? It must have come from God, of course. Or so the rationalization goes.

In fact, there are common categories of explanatory models that cross all human religions. Common explanations involving supernatural agencies for predation, death, morality, social exchange – all of these have very similar representations in religions around the world. Chance? Don’t think so. It’s because they’re all basically driven by the same evolved human mental structures.”

“I’ve heard something like this before. ‘Man is not a rational animal – he is a rationalizing animal.’ Okay – say this theory is supportable by the evidence…”

“It is, Gio. When you get your augs back and look at the neurobiology data, it’ll be obvious to you.”

“Fine – till I can explain it, I guess I’ll take it on faith.” I paused for a minute to savor the irony of that. “Even so, how does knowing this help you ‘cure’ the fanatics? The way you describe it, you’d have to eliminate their conscious modeling ability to get rid of their religious tendencies.”

“There’s more Gio. Remember how we started this discussion? Not everyone is a religious fanatic. I asked what made the difference.”

“Ok – I’ll bite. What makes the difference between a secular scientist and a religious fundamentalist?”

“The God Module.”

I laughed. “Appropriately named. Another brain structure, I suppose?”

“Yep. In fact, it was discovered decades ago, way back in the 1990’s. Through different experiments using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation and neural imaging, there was identified an area of the human brain that, when stimulated, caused religious visions, feelings of the presence of supernatural beings – most of the sort of mental states we’ve come to associate with people susceptible to the ‘fanatics’ disease.”

“So you’re telling me that some people have a genetic predisposition toward being religious extremists?”

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

“Okay, why are you telling me?”

“Because we know now how to suppress this portion of the brain. The same tech we use for our brain augs can be adapted to suppress the God Module. In fact, has been adapted. And we now have the go ahead to use it.” She took my hands. “We can cure these people, Gio!”

The little warning bells inside my head were ringing loudly. I wasn’t sure if these were from my new augs, or my unconscious modeling driven by my vestigal “God Module,” but I knew I was uncomfortable with what I was hearing.

“Delilah, if anyone should have a motivation for wanting to do something to these people, it would be me. I’m the one whose brain they’ve been fucking with tonight.” I looked at her to see if she was listening. She was. In fact, she appeared to be completely focused on what I was saying.

“But…” she led.

“But…just now, you sounded just like them. That was their whole story – they were trying to “cure” me. And now we’re saying we want to try to ‘cure’ them.”

She looked down. “We’re not the kidnappers, Gio. We’re not the murderers.”

“True. And we should arrest the ones who commit crimes against others. But to force a change in their brains, to modify how they think – we’d be no better than they are. Who are we to make that decision?”

Delilah got up and paced back and forth for a minute. Appearing to come to some internal decision, she came back and sat down. “Gio - did you ever wonder how it was that I was placed so deep in the GC network?”

“A little. You certainly seemed to be able to get inside their heads – I assumed you were just really good. ”

“I am really good. But now you know that some of the GC’s aren’t too bad themselves, for all their limitations. And nobody is that good without augments, and I haven’t had mine for years.” She looked sad. “Being really good wasn’t good enough for the seven agents prior to me who tried similar infiltrations.”

Delilah looked away and took a deep breath. She said, in a faint, almost little girl voice, “I can get inside their heads, Gio, because I was one. I was born into God’s Children.”

I shook my head to clear it. Damn, still fuzzed out. “I’m sorry, I’m still a little out of it. I thought you said you were born a GC.”

She looked up from whatever bit of history she had briefly visited. “I did.” She glanced to the side, intent on something only she could see. “ I was born and raised in a GC sanctuary on the coast. One day I was outside, just walking, and thinking. I was sixteen, and I was feeling hemmed in by the walls, by my family, by the Church. Typical teen rebellion, perhaps a little stronger than normal. And I met the Chief.”

She meant the Chief of our agency, one of the first of the post-humans. Older than Josh, possibly older than god, the Chief had recruited most of us, and had started this agency back in the depths of time. Before I was born, certainly.

“What, please don’t tell me the lecherous old man charmed a young sixteen year old to abandon her lifelong faith and training.”

She looked solemn. “In a way. Gio, I was one of the first to have the God Module suppression.”

“You asked the Chief to suppress your God Module?”

She shook her head. “I might have, in time. I was already on that path, and he can be very persuasive, as you know.” She paused again. “But he didn’t ask.”

I could feel the helpless rage start to boil again, a rumbling of thunder in my ears. Delilah placed her hands on my shoulders and looked concerned – I guess it didn’t take augs to see I was upset.

“Gio – it worked! Sure, at first I thought I had lost something – I could no longer feel the connection with The One, could no longer feel God’s presence. I no longer felt guided by a higher power. But it didn’t take me very long to realize that I no longer felt like I wanted to be.”

“The GCs trusted me because they knew me, knew I couldn’t be one of the soulless. And to them, I had a knack of getting into the heads of the damned, knowing where they would be looking for us, what methods they would use. A knack that came from certain knowledge provided by the Chief, planted for my use to ensure I’d be placed in the highest levels of the movement.”

“He abused you, and then he used you.” I shook my head in disgust.

“I don’t see it that way.”

“Maybe not. Maybe you’re happy with the results. But it doesn’t change the facts. He made a decision for you that wasn’t his to make.”

“But it was the right decision, Gio.”

“Maybe. If so, then it was luck, not morality. If it had been the wrong decision, it wasn’t something he could undo.”

“Gio, if someone has schizophrenia, do we ask them if they want to be cured? Or do we just cure them?”

“This is different. You were competent to make your own decision.”

“Was I? Post-humans make decisions based on data, on rational logic. Humans make decisions – poor ones – based on ill-defined feelings. We’re competent to make our own decisions. Years of war, famine, disease, and religious craziness prove that they’re not.”

She took a deep breath, then sighed. “I had a brain imbalance, one caused by a genetic appendage that no longer served any useful purpose. In fact that’s exactly what it was, Gio – I had an inflamed appendix, and the Chief operated and cut it out. He cured me.”

I stood up and drained the last of my coffee. It had grown cold. I no longer enjoyed it.


Delilah took off to go plan her raid and lobotomy party, and I closed my eyes to think. Why was I so agitated? Sure, the emotional regulator augs were offline, but that wouldn’t cause the agitation – it just meant I couldn’t suppress it. So what was the problem that was causing my distress? If only I had my mains restored so I could model it.

Wait. I do have processors – the new augs in my brain stem. But I couldn’t consciously access them. How did I use them before? I tried to remember.

Emotion! Being resident in the “primitive” areas of the brain, somehow strong emotion appeared to bridge the gap between my conscious and unconscious thought processes. I let the agitation and anger build. And then I had an insight.

Why did emotion exist in the first place? What evolutionary purpose did it serve? It was a shortcut!

I tried to reason out what I already knew from my flash of insight. Picture a proto-human. (Or even an ancestor further up the chain). It’s a complex world, with a myriad of activities going on, and a combinatorial higher number of choices for action.

A tiger is coming at you – quick, what do you do? Do you hold still and hope he doesn’t see you? Do you jump up in the tree to get away? Do you throw a rock at him? Maybe a more complex combination, like throw a rock to distract him, then climb the tree?

Oops, too late! You just used up all your time trying to rationally go through all the choices, and the tiger used this time to cover the intervening ground and bite your throat out.

Emotions are a way to short cut to the narrow set of choices that have worked before. Those that didn’t work in the past, if they didn’t kill you, caused a negative physiological response, which the brain encoded as “this is bad – don’t know why, but it just feels terrible. Don’t do this again.” This is fear, disgust, aversion. Those that worked had an opposite effect – “this feels good – remember this, it would be good to have this outcome again.”

Emotions are encoded experience. This is what we know as “gut feel.” Without emotions, we couldn’t make decisions that were right more often than wrong, and we couldn’t make them quick enough.

And I’d been suppressing most of my emotions my whole life. Till today, when I had no choice.

I went to find a terminal. I punched in the code I had seen Del use when she was connecting me with God’s Children. It took a while to connect. There was no video at the other end, but a familiar voice answered.


“Hello Judith. It’s Martinez. Morales. Whatever. Look, is Josh there?”

“You hurt him, you cyborg freak! And why should we talk to you anyway? You’re probably already on your way to take us all in and suck out our souls.”

“Judith, it’s important. Just put him on, okay?”

Another familiar voice joined. “You know, arresting us won’t accomplish anything. There are many more of us than you realize, Mr. Morales, and they’ll keep fighting. As I will, from whatever cell you put me in.”

“That’s great, Josh. Except for one thing – you won’t feel much like fighting after we get through with you.” I explained what was going to happen to him and the others.

Josh turned on the video and looked back at me. “You’re lying. That would be illegal. And you’d be making us into martyrs that would rally the rest of those that were on the fence – it would be a disaster.”

“What kind of a martyr would go on record as saying it was the best thing that ever happened to him, and that all the rest of God’s Children should get the operation as well?”

“That could never happen. My faith runs too deep.”

“Yeah. That’s what Delilah, er, Charity thought too. Except it turns out it was all just a bad dream, caused by an old piece of brain gone wrong, an inflamed mental appendix.”

Josh was quiet a moment. Then he turned to Judith and told her to start the emergency evacuation. He turned back to me. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I don’t believe it’s right for us to take this step. I still think you’re nuts, and you should be locked up for what you tried to do to me. But not until I can sort out this poorly conceived idea to fix your mixed up noggin’ without your consent.”

Josh grinned. “See son? I said you could be saved. The power of God is starting to work in you already.”

“You call it God. I call it morality.”

“Morality comes from God.”

“Not mine. Mine comes from a reasoned rationality about doing what is right for human kind. And reason says that once someone steps over the line from protecting their right to choose to taking away someone else’s right to choose, they have gone too far.” I paused, wondering if he was ready to hear what I was saying. “What you do with your followers, your children, crosses that line.”

Josh scowled. “Children need guidance to find the way. Man is born into sin – only by keeping your evil influences away from them can they hope to have the peace of mind to be able to hear God’s voice. It’s always there, but people need to listen for it, need to let him in.” He leaned close to the video pickup. “You couldn’t hear him till we made it quiet enough for you to hear.”

I wasn’t going to undo a lifetime of indoctrination in one quick conversation. “Fine – I won’t try to argue that you’re wrong. What is wrong is that you never give them a choice - even after they find the inner voice.”

I went on quickly, hoping he would listen long enough to hear. “It’s one thing to assume responsibility for the guidance of children when they’re young. It’s another, terrible thing to assume responsibility for their choices throughout their life. Wasn’t that the whole point of your Adam and Eve story? Wasn’t that the whole point of your Jesus story? Man has a choice to make – in your worldview, a choice between good and evil.”

“You take away that choice.”

Silence. Josh sat back and closed his eye. “…he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies…” he murmured. He squinted at me. “Your kind is good with words. Words are too easy – the truth comes from what you feel inside.”

You shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free,” I retorted. If I’d had my secondaries online, I probably could have picked a better verse. But this was the only one I remembered.

Josh stared at me for a long bit, then nodded to himself as if he’d come to some decision. Judith appeared in the background and said something unintelligible. Josh looked back at me. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll consider your words, and the actions behind them, and ask God for guidance.” He reached out and cut off the connection.

I sat back and rubbed my eyes. It really had been a long day.

“What have you done, Eligio?” said Delilah’s voice quietly from behind me. She must have been standing there long enough to at least hear the end of my conversation with Josh.

“You know what I’ve done, Del,” I said still facing the darkened terminal. I turned to face her. “You should be asking me why I did it."

“I don't give a fuck.” She pulled out a comm and started to speak into it.

“It’s too late. They’re gone,” I said.

She paused, then spoke again into the comm. “Hold one”. She looked at me, furious. “Dammit Morales! I’ve been working at getting back at these bastards for years. Years! And you go and fuck it up in one night.”

“You don’t need to get back at them, Del.” I blinked. “Charity.”

“What the fuck do you know about it!” she screamed. “Don’t call me that name!” She stood there, shaking. “You’re a traitor to your kind, Morales.”

“And what kind is that, Del?” I asked.

“You’re a post-human, Morales. Or at least you were. I don’t know what you are now. Scum. Less than human.” She looked on the verge of tears.

“Okay – let’s see if you can guess what I am now.” I paused to make sure she was listening. “To use your own words, humans are incompetent to make decisions because they use mostly feelings. Post-humans don’t have this problem, because we use our augs, both for feeling suppression as well as for more brain power.”
“What’s your point?”

I grinned at her. “Maybe I’m the first of my kind, Del. Someone who uses both. The first Post Post-human.”

“Riiiiiight.” Her shoulders slumped. She looked disgusted, but she didn’t look like she was about to shoot me anymore. “C’mon with me back to the clinic – it’s clear that whatever they used to zap you scrambled more than a few secondaries.” She used her comm to tell them we were coming, and to cancel tonight’s raid.

I got up to follow her. Was I nuts? Enough people had been playing ping pong in my head over the past day to support that idea. But it seemed so clear now. It felt right.

“I’m serious Del. I know I’m right here, and if you stop to think about it you’ll see it too. This is a correct moral decision.”

“Really? What makes you so right, so much more moral than the rest of us?”

“Ever hear the term satyagraha?” I asked.

Del thought for a second. “Ghandi?”

“Right. ‘Holding firmly to the truth’. To give up what you value, because you now serve a greater good. To fight against the unjust and immoral, nonviolently. ‘Ahimsa’. If no individual or group could claim absolute knowledge of the truth, no one should use violence to compel others to act against their different but also sincere understanding of it.”

“This is worse than I thought. Now you think you’re Ghandi.” But her voice had lost its ice. She was thinking about it.

“Start worrying when I start wearing a loincloth. Del, why do we work against God’s Children?”

“Because they’re fanatics.”

“No. Or not just that. They’re fanatics who believe God is on their side, who so believe in the righteousness of their actions that feel justified in forcing these beliefs on others, without their consent.”

“Exactly. Which is why we have to stop them.”

“We have to stop them from harming others. We have to keep trying to convince them that what they’re doing is wrong. But not by taking away a part of them that they value – not without their consent.”

She suddenly stopped and turned around. “And you’re the judge of that? That gives you the right to work against what this agency has decided to do, with all of its AIs and augmented personnel?” Her eyes glistened. “Who died and made you God?”

“That’s what it means to have choices, Del.” I spoke quietly. “It means you get to make one. Right or wrong. Good or Evil. Rational or Irrational.” I took her hands in mine. “Whether it is evolution, natural or self-directed, or whether it’s God – we have the ability to make a choice. I made mine. Now you have to make yours.”

She shook her head slowly. “Amazing how you can get from helping a bunch of fanatics escape justice to being the moral savior of the human species “ A tear slid down her cheek. I reached up the back of my finger to stroke her face and catch it. “What do you want from me?” she whispered.

“I want you to think about it. Think about a morality based on loyalty to something greater than self or tribe. A species loyalty. A morality not imposed by superstition, hierarchical authoritarianism, or religious dogma. A morality constructed by rational thought, but tempered by feelings honed by millions of years of evolution.”

I rushed on. “I want you to help me. Join me in arguing with the Chief and the AIs that they’re wrong, that just because we have the power to play god doesn’t mean we should use it.” I brought her tear to my lips, tasted the saltiness with my tongue. “Help me get them to listen to their gut again, not just their augs. Help me convince them what is right. What is moral.”

I didn’t know what she was going to decide. But she was thinking, and just as important she was feeling. At least now she wasn’t just reacting to what had been done to her, trying to get revenge against those she thought took away her childhood.

She could fight for freedom to choose, or she could go along with “just following orders.” She could choose moral or immoral. Post post-human, or all too human. But she could choose.

And then, perhaps together, we could figure out whether our post-humanity could create a world we could choose to live in.

God's Children (part 3)

[this post has been replaced with the final story now found here ]

Saturday, April 23, 2005

God's Children

I've started writing fiction again. Since I don't flatter myself that it's good enough to get published, I figure I'll post it here. Someone might get a kick out of it.

Here's the first chapter of the story I'm working on now.
[this post has been replaced with the final story now found here ]

Thursday, April 14, 2005

They're Coming

Want to see something amazing? Check this out.

This is a picture taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (the one being abandoned by NASA because "it would put astronauts at too much risk to repair" - Hello? It's okay to put a million troops "in harm's way" to keep a penny-ante dictator from using imaginary WMD, but to risk one astronaut to repair one of the most important scientific instruments ever invented...but I digress).

The picture is of a "smoke ring" galaxy (or Hoag's Object) which is thought to be formed by a soliton wave, which is akin to the bow wave from a boat that continues intact for a long distance. But forget the physics of soliton waves for a minute (I know it's tough, but you need to let go).

How about pondering what the hell caused the soliton wave in the first place? Looks to me like some sort of incredibly massive event took place at the core of this galaxy, something akin to a collision or explosion the size of trillions of star systems - almost beyond comprehension.

Natural event? Maybe. But look carefully at the picture again. See that little circle about 10 degrees of North from the main galaxy? Another smoke ring galaxy!

Now, one amazing once in a billion years incredibly rare event would be interesting, no doubt the source of hundreds of speculative astrophysics papers and dozens of newly minted PhDs. But two? In almost a direct line with each other (at the distances we're talking about, anyway)? Hmmmm...maybe it's time to buy that lottery ticket after all, since statistics must clearly lie.

And let's think about this a little more...

  • For both of these galaxies to look so similar, they must have had a similar cataclysmic event.

  • For both of these galaxies to look so similar when they're thousands of light years apart, the galaxy in the back (the little one) must have had its mind blowing event thousands of years before the galaxy in the foreground.

Which implies that there is a common cause...and that common cause is advancing through the universe, affecting galaxies along the way...and that common cause is headed this way.

I've always wondered what would be the outcome if some extraterrestial species caused some massive observable event in the universe that could be observed with instruments here on earth. Say perhaps a galactic engineering project. Perhaps a galactic war. Perhaps just the latest power source invention (having abandoned inefficient fossil fuels billions of years past).

Since scientists don't believe in ETs (not if they want to get published in a respectable journal, get tenure, get grant money, push around slave labor grad students and host terribly droll faculty parties, they don't), what would be the result of such an observation?

The result would be a series of fascinating papers, in which very smart astrophysicists jump through hoops and create some new, exciting physics to explain the event. When all the while, Occam's Razor says that perhaps there's a simpler explanation.

And that explanation may be - they're coming. And they're pissed.
(And they blow stuff up when they're pissed. Big time.)

Pleasant Dreams...

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Meaning Of Life

Nobody knows the meaning of life, or even if there is a meaning (ie, whether "life" is just a completely random happenstance in the evolution of the Universe).

But, at one point in time, nobody knew how infection was caused or how to treat it. No one knew what electricity was, or how to harness it. At one point in time, no one even knew how to farm, or build shelter, or write. At some point in time, no one even knew such answers were possible, let alone how to construct the ideas of these inventions.

Yet each has been invented, to great practical effect (or "discovered" - but I think Socrates kicked Plato's ass on that idea). There's no inherent reason to believe that the question of the meaning of life can't fall into the same category, "things that can be known to a sufficient degree to predict and manipulate it".

Can we bound the problem at all? Can we say with any certainty what the meaning of life is not, or what characteristics the answer must have?

As I said in a prior post, since the definition of life is open to debate, the term "meaning of life" may not have any real semantic value. I could do the usual philosophical masturbation and manipulate words and rhetoric to make a case. (And I guess I will, a little). But it should be possible to tie the boundaries or characteristics of the answer with what we know of reality - of physics, math, evolution, biology, etc. Only by using such "concrete" definitions can the argument hope to have any basis in said reality.

Any Meaning Of Life must explain both the how and why life exists. The "why" must derive from the "how". (Starting with "why" definitely puts the cart before the Equus Caballus and falls into that philosophical self-gratification category of argument).

So what do we know about the "how" of life? Did we need to somehow be present at the origin of life to understand the "how"? If so, then we better focus on understanding the nature of time first, so we can go back in time to observe the origin of life.

But I don't think that's necessary. The physical universe has been around for a long time, and it's likely that the physical laws that were in such turmoil at the beginning of space-time settled down long before the first emergence of life in the universe. And those laws are pretty much the same laws that exist today. So by learning to understand the "hows" of today's physical universe, we should be able to understand the "hows" that drive life.

It matters less whether the specific origin of life on earth was in primordial soup, simple RNA chains in clay, or extraterrestial. What matters is that we're learning about some physical laws that pretty much made the emergence of life a foregone conclusion.

The book Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny, is a great introduction to some very important concepts that we're only just now beginning to formalize. The most important concept is that of "Non-zero sum" activities (as opposed to zero sum games, where if I win, you lose). In a zero-sum game, the size of the pie is fixed - if I get a bigger slice, you get a smaller slice.

Non-zero sum games create a bigger pie. A convincing case is made that - purely from physical laws and evolutionary biology - life has grown more complex, and more socially cooperative. As the author puts it,
The underlying reason that non-zero-sum games wind up being played well is the same in biological evolution as in cultural evolution. Whether you are a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you're all in the same boat you'll tend to perish unless you are conducive to productive coordination.... Genetic evolution thus tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.

In other words, it isn't just fortunate that cells cooperated and collected into colonies, colonies into organisms, and organisms into societies. It's inevitable.

At first, you may look at this and get depressed. Is that all life is? Just a set of random physical processes? The only "meaning" is to be assembled, grow, assemble another, then die?

But don't get depressed. You're just not looking at this the right way. What it says is that not only was life inevitable given the current physics of our universe, but that life continues to evolve and grow in a direction that is ever more capable of understanding that same universe. Life continues to invent more and more complex non-zero sum games. And with the complexity comes capacity to understand and interact in the universe in even richer and more complex ways. Like Moore's Law, the complexity of life and its capacity for understanding the universe grows exponentially.

This is basically an update on Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere, without the need to invoke God or directed evolution. It isn't necessary to believe in either to explain why organisms emerge, grow more complex, and create larger "organisms". Some, like author Vernor Vinge (one of my favorite fiction authors), see human evolution moving toward a "singularity" event, where the complexity and capability of humans take them to a "post-human" future that we can not fully envision from this side of the event. (This is similar to Chardin's Omega Point. And perhaps Chardin's reconciliation of Christian religion with this evolutionary perspective will sit better with those of you who have your own personal Jesus).

So whether you believe in the scientific attempts to explain the "how" of life, or the religious views of creationism, it appears in either case that life does have a purpose. That purpose is to cooperate and evolve more complex and capable life that can better understand the universe (which in turn can better cooperate and evolve - and perhaps design - more complex and capable life!).

We can't predict "the end" of this path (if there is one), and any ultimate "meaning" that may result - but we can take comfort and pride in knowing we are a part of a process that just gets better at understanding and being "one with the universe"...

Life Is Good.

(The implications of this on defining what is "moral" behavior for humans - what behavior assists in life's purpose, and what behavior does not - are interesting material for another post).

Sunday, April 10, 2005

We Know Nothing

The scientific method is one of the most wonderful inventions of mankind. With it, we have uncovered a multitude of discoveries.

Yet with all we know, there are some things of which we know remarkably little. Here are some that I ponder (weak and weary)...

1. Consciousness - what is it? It could be that the problem is phrased poorly, since a definition of consciousness seems difficult to agree to. Talk of qualia, neural correlates (NCC), and the "hard problem" of consciouness are attempts at definitions, but still have the same vagueness, unable to tie to concrete representation. Perhaps sentience is a better concept to uncover, ie, what makes a thinking being? Do we have free will? Do other species think? Why do we laugh? Why do we sleep? We can't explain *any* of this yet.

2. Time - what is it? It's easy to toss out "fourth dimension" and "fabric of space-time", but our understanding of time is extraordinarily limited. Why does it flow in one direction? Can we reverse time, or move back through time? Is time quantized, or is it analog? (Is there a minimum discrete unit of time? Perhaps the "time" it would take light in a vacuum to move a Planck length?) Are time and space separable (ie, can we move faster than light? If you believe Lorentz rather than Einstein we can - and quantum "action at a distance" would certainly indicate Einstein had a hole.

3. Gravity. We really haven't a clue as to what causes gravity. Einstein described it as a curvature in the fabric of space-time. But this is descriptive rather than explanatory and says nothing about why this stuff we call matter has an inherent property of an attractive force to other matter. Other theories posit it as a normal electromagnetic force - a "drag" caused by the quantum vacuum. This is a little more interesting, but still unproven. Bottom line - we really have no idea why gravity sucks.

4. Life - what is it? Like consciousness, we can't even agree on a definition for what is alive and what is not alive. For example, living things ingest energy and emit waste products (or some variant of the two), but so do cars. Living things replicate and change via mutation and selection, but so do certain computer programs, while some forms of life, such as sterile cross breeds, vasectomy patients, and post-menopausal women, do not. Everything, from rocks to humans, are made up of the same basic ingredients. At what point does a combination of certain atoms in certain ways become alive? How does entropy reverse itself in discrete pockets of the universe, creating order from disorder? And then, for no apparent reason, reverse itself yet again and cause life to end in death?

5. Emergent properties - reductionists believe that if the fundamental "particles" of space-time are understood, and if you could theoretically set initial parameters, then the result can be predicted. This is core to the quest for the Theory of Everything (TOE). But at 10120 bits, there isn't enough computing power in the universe as we know it to even predict a tiny subset of outcomes in the real world. What's required is an understanding of "higher order" physical laws, the ones which describe emergent properties of complex systems. Why? Because we can't even begin to explain why complex properties emerge from more basic components; how does the "macro" world emerge from the quantum world? How does life, consciousness, space-time, or anything else on this list emerge from the fields of string theory?

6. Where are they? Fermi's paradox wonders if there are other planets, and some of these are capable of sustaining life, and some portion of these become intelligent, (and with what we know so far, the answers to these are yes, yes, and likely - see Drake's Equation), then where the hell are the little green men? They should be all over the place. (The scary part here is that most of the proposed explanations for why this is so don't bode well for mankind.)

Let me briefly address the "obvious" answer I hear from certain friends - "God". This is a cop out. The use of the word "God" here means "anything I don't understand can be ascribed to God" (or in the more devout, "anything (period) can be ascribed to God". Fortunately, there have been enough people in the world for whom this explanation is insufficient, who went on to hypothesize and experiment to discover the reality of reality.

We've only scratched the surface!

How I wish I could live long enough to see real progress on these ideas...

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Let's Be Friends

(or Always A Bridesmaid...)

I love having friends who are women. Aside from just being a heck of a lot more fun to look at that my guy friends, there's a more explicit shared intimacy and openness that comes from an absence of automatic competition that same sex friendships have. And there's the inevitable remarkably different perspective that a girl has upon the same set of facts or observations that provide a different way of looking at a situation from any that a guy could come up with.

But this different perspective is a double-edged sword, which can spring back and slice you to the bone just when you're not looking.

What guy hasn't heard those dread words, "Let's be friends."
(This usually follows some variation of "You're a great guy, but...", or "You're such a sweet man...", or the most horrid of all, "I do like you, but not in that way...").

In my experience, there's quite a wide range of subtlety in phrasing here. At the upper end of the "friendship plateau" you hear "You're one of my best friends" (or the more qualified "best guy friends"). From here, you're only headed downward, with "You're a good friend", "I'd like to stay just friends", "Let's just be friends", "You can hang out with me and my friends (as long as you keep buying the drinks)", down to "I don't find you completely repulsive, and can tolerate your presence for brief periods of time. Just don't touch me or stand too close, okay?"

At the upper end, the woman really means what she says - she likes you and wants to maintain a friendship. And that's great - these friendships are wonderful, within the constraints of that relationship.

But what is left unsaid, and is as glaring as the big pile of crap dropped from the elephant in the room, is the dread "I just don't find you sexually attractive."

Why is this so awful? I think it's because people are hard wired to crave some sexual connection, whether or not they intend to follow through to the messy (but oh so fun) conclusion of that connection. Continuing with my evolutionary biology theme (my obsession of the week - ain't OCD grand?), it appears clear why this should be so.

Those who are found sexually attractive manage to breed the next generation of squaling infants, who in turn grow and perform their own dance of natural selection. Those who are *not* found sexually attractive tend not to procreate, so this characteristic tends to die out in a population pretty rapidly.

Is stands to reason than as the majority of the population is at some distribution of sexual attraction, competition for the mate begins, and you end up with millions more years of refinement and variation on this theme, resulting some day in a society where everyone is either having sex, thinking about sex, or writing about sex. (Guess which one of these tendencies doesn't carry on to later generations very well?)

And that is the crux of it. Everyone wants to be found attractive, because said desire is a deeply bred, necessary genetic characteristic of being born in the first place. And when a woman says "let's be friends", she is really saying "Look pal, I only have so many eggs here, and I'm not wasting any of them on you, okay?"

Which still hurts, no matter how commonplace it gets.

Most of my life, I've been that "great guy, such a good friend". And I do enjoy my female friends, and I'm glad I have them.

But every now and then, it would be nice to hear "I want you. I must have you. Now."
I can't help it - I'm just drawn that way.

(I'll hold off till another post to explain why I think guys need this kind of positive reinforcement from someone other than their current wife/girlfriend/significant other - the inevitable resulting debate over whether humans are naturally monogamous would have to emerge, and it would take another thousand words just to wade through why men and women see this so differently...)

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Rationality of Irrational Emotions

I had lunch with a friend today, and during the course of the conversation, I made her cry.

It wasn't that I was being mean or bullying (at least I wasn't intending to - maybe "insensitive" is a valid accusation. Another term I've heard is "acting like a man". Guilty.)

Anyway, I was asking about a prior boyfriend of hers, and the memories evoked caused her to feel sad. And she teared up. And silently cried.

Her tears, driven by some strong emotion in her, immediately evoked a cascade of emotions in me. Shock, disbelief, confusion, guilt, sympathy, a twisting in my gut, a compulsion to put my arms around her and provide whatever comfort I could. All of these, rising in a wave which causes the vision to narrow, a roaring in the ears, a hypersensitivity to any move - very much similar to a flight or fight response.

This "gut response" was strong, and in many ways irrational. Meaning there was no rational chain of logic that led me to think the thoughts I did - this was pure emotion, driven from the most basic part of the autonomic nervous system.

Later, disturbed by the aftershocks of this event still resonating around in my head, I got to wondering about this response. What was going on here? Why did this have such a strong impact on me? Why did my brain work this way?

So, in order to get my mind off it's disturbed spiral, I decided to research it.

What good are emotions?

There isn't much known about crying, really. Just about everything I could find is summed up in a little section at the end of this posting. So, like with so much in life, I tried to figure it out myself.

Clearly a response like this must have evolutionary advantages or it wouldn't be so strong and widespread after so many millions of years. (Even if it evolved early, as it appears it did, there is no reason it wouldn't have diffused randomly in the population to a wider spectrum of response unless it continued to confer some evolutionary advantage).

Being a strong rationalist, I believed that emotion was the bane of reason and rational decision making. I've prided myself on my unemotional "fact based decision making" for years.

Turns out I'm full of shit. (Surprise...)

It appears that emotion is in all likelihood necessary for rational decision making. Descartes' Error - Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Anotonio R. Damasio, a neurologist, makes the excellent case for the "somatic-marker hypothesis", which basically says that without gut responses, your brain cannot learn and remember what works out well and what doesn't.

In a nutshell, when you do something that has a bad result, the body suffers, which cascades in a series of emotions that ensures the connection is permanently seared into your brain. The converse is true as well (good results also generate somatic/body emotions which help cement the association of the action to the result).

Now, this is a gross simplification of some very well presented facts and conclusions based upon years of neurological research. But the bottom line is that people who are devoid of emotion (through some form of brain damage) do not behave rationally. The implication is because they do not think rationally - they need emotion to think rationally!

In fact, the lack of a somatic response is the hallmark of a psychopath. (This seems to be my week for thinking about psychopaths - see prior posting ).

So I suppose it's a good thing I'm still shaken up about it.

Now, if I only knew what to do about it...


Aside from a very few, unconfirmed reports in animals -- an Indian elephant here, an African gorilla there, humans are the only animals known to cry emotional tears of sadness and joy, though the vocal cries, whines, and whimpers of young mammals are similarly used to solicit aid from mothers.

We cry when we're sad, depressed, in despair - maudlin, happy, frustrated, angry, relieved, anxious or even having an aesthetic experience

The Biology of Crying

Neurotransmitters like VIP and ACH, which have other, well-documented roles as chemical messengers, clearly trigger tears, says physiologist Darlene Dartt, senior scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston. University of Minnesota biochemist, William Frey, discovered the neurotransmitters leucine-enkephalin (an endorphin or natural opiate-like substance for pain relief) and prolactin (released from the pituitary in response to emotional stress) in emotional tears; the substances were not found in tears shed in response to sliced onions.

It's an ancient part of the brain

Babies born without brain structures above the amphibian midbrain (i.e., anencephalic infants) can still cry.
Crying is built into our Paleocircuits - A preconfigured pathway or network of nerve cells in the forebrain, brain stem, or spinal cord utilized in nonverbal communication.


About 85 percent of women and 73 percent of men say they feel better after crying, suggesting, says Frey, that ``tears help remove chemicals that build up during stress.''

Women cry five times more frequently than men (and average five crying spells a month).

"Do not be moved by women's tears, they have taught their eyes to weep," - Ovid

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Too Good To Last

Why is it that when something is really good, it ends? Usually right about the time I realize how really good it is.

Or does it just seem that way? Is it just a perverse perception? A "glass is half full" outlook on life?

Or is it that I sabotage myself? (Remember Woody Allen's "I'd never want to join any club that would have me as a member?" self loathing "I don't deserve success or happiness because I'm not a good enough person?" bs?)

Do we make our own reality - pick our path through our lives, given the multitude of choices available in a quantum multi-verse, and I just happen to like to pick paths that result in new challenges rather than happiness and contentment?

Or is it just that I can't appreciate how good something is without having some close temporal event that really sucks with which to contrast it?

And if so...What the fuck is wrong with me, anyway?