12 Years a Slave

220px-12_Years_a_Slave_film_posterThis week, I saw the movie 12 Years a Slave.  Most of the reviewers have stated that the move is a hard one to watch, but that they were glad they did.  That pretty much sums up my reaction to it.  The violence in the movie is limited, but what is shown is brutal and realistic.

Unlike the Quentin Tarantino movie, Django Unchained, the central figure in this movie, Solomon Northup, is based on a historical person, so he’s not a superhero.  This isn’t a tale of someone who gets in gunfights, but of just an ordinary guy who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, and holds up as best he can over the years, before eventually convincing a sympathetic person to write his family so they can secure his release.

The ugliness of slavery is shown in full force in the movie, from the slave markets that split families, to the whippings in punishment for crossing the (often brutally fickle) slave masters, to women slaves being raped by their masters, and to lynchings of slaves who tried to escape.  In one scene, Northup starts to attempt to escape, but comes across a lynching and is unnerved enough to abandon the attempt.

Slavery was a brutal institution, and the American south’s resistance to its demise and subsequent century of racial discrimination is loathsome and a blot on our honor.  (I live in the American south.)

But we should remember that slavery was an institution local to the south only toward its end.  A century before the American Civil War, it was pervasive among the colonial powers.  There were abolitionists before the industrial revolution, but they were only able to gain traction once the economic incentive for slavery started to dry up.  The American south was unlucky enough to have an economy that still benefited from slavery.  And it wasn’t the last region in the Americas to abolish it; it persisted in Brazil until 1888.

Until the 19th century, slavery was a pervasive human institution that had existed throughout recorded history.  When watching a movie like 12 Years a Slave, which I highly recommend, we should remember that slavery wasn’t an aberration, and celebrate the fact that humanity was able to move past it.  (I know slavery still exists in isolated pockets throughout the world, but it is officially illegal in every country.)

We should also remember that slavery’s disappearance as a legal institution is an example of humanity changing, and take heart that it is possible for us to change in other ways.

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How to find an exoplanet

I suspect many, if not most, of my readers are already familiar with the techniques listed in this video.  But if you’re not, and wondering how astronomers find planets orbiting other stars, you might find this interesting.

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Does the Higgs boson actually exist?

I have to admit to wondering the same thing Nick talks about here.  Do any of these subatomic particles actually exist?  At least in the way we conventionally define “exist”?  We’re talking about entities that are sometimes a wave, sometimes a point particle and, as far as we can observe, behave randomly within certain probabilities.

Of course, it’s also hard to argue that the standard model hasn’t been productive.  It is an enormously successful theory.  So thinking of these entities as particles has been productive.  But it seems like a case might be made that we’re leaning on an interpretive crutch that might not be as helpful as it once was.

That said, not all particle physicists consider subatomic particle to be actual particles anymore.  Physicists like Vic Stenger still insist that there is a particle there, but others like Sean Carroll argue that there are only fields and their interactions.  So, many in the quantum physics community might already be thinking along the lines Nick is talking about.

And contrary to Nick’s comments, all of the popular interpretations of quantum mechanics give up some cherished notion of reality, so it’s not entirely clear that this is a community unwilling to give things up to understand what is happening.  What’s lacking is compelling evidence to cinch any of these interpretations as the correct one.

Still, I agree with Nick that it’s important from time to time to back up and reconsider the actual empirical data that we have and question our assumptions.  Assumptions like whether these basic elements of matter really are particles in any meaningful sense.

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Voyager spacecraft might not have reached interstellar space

I have to say that I had no idea this was still being debated: Voyager spacecraft might not have reached interstellar space.

In 2012, the Voyager mission team announced that the Voyager 1 spacecraft had passed into interstellar space, traveling further from Earth than any other manmade object.

But, in the nearly two years since that historic announcement, and despite subsequent observations backing it up, uncertainty about whether Voyager 1 really crossed the threshold continues. There are some scientists who say that the spacecraft is still within the heliosphere – the region of space dominated by the Sun and its wind of energetic particles – and has not yet reached the space between the stars.

Now, two Voyager team scientists have developed a test that they say could prove once and for all if Voyager 1 has crossed the boundary. The new test is outlined in a study accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

It’s interesting that the line between interplanetary and interstellar space appears to have become the boundary of the heliosphere.  It’s worth remembering that the Voyager probes are well beyond the orbits of Neptune and Pluto, or the overall Kuiper belt.  Both probes are currently over 100 AU away, over 100 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.  By many standards, they entered interstellar space long ago.

By other standards, they still have a long way to go.  They haven’t passed the orbits of all of the scattered disk objects, and they still have millenia to go before they’re out of the Oort Cloud or beyond the point where the Sun’s gravitational influence dominates, both of which extend for light years.  If the Voyager probes were headed for the nearest star (which they’re not), they would have covered less than 0.04% of the distance so far.

Whether or not Voyager 1 has actually exited the Heliosphere, it is definitely near or at the boundary.  It still amazes me that human created objects are that far out.  And that we’ll have instruments observing what the environment out there is like.

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Transcendence2014PosterI finally watched the movie, Transcendence.  I had commented a while back, when the trailer came out, the problems I had with what appeared to be the central premise of the film.  Since then, there’s been a lot of harsh reviews of the film.  I did find a lot of silliness in it, but overall it was more intelligent than I expected.

I’ve written before that I think the danger of an AI revolt is vastly overblown.  For AIs to revolt, they would need to care about their own wellbeing, to have their own agenda.  Except for perhaps a few questionable university research projects, we’re unlikely to produce such AIs.  As organic creatures, we all have evolved instincts for self actualization, but AIs wouldn’t have that evolutionary background.  Their strongest instincts would be to fulfill the purpose that we designed them for.

That said, this movie isn’t about an AI revolt, but about something I think is a more realistic threat.  What happens when we upload the mind of a person and their intellect becomes far more vast than it was before?  Is the uploaded entity really the same person?  What does it even mean to be “the same person”?  How much of a connection does such an entity have with its old friends, family, and humanity overall?  And as we become digitally integrated, are we in danger of losing our humanity?  Should we be concerned about that loss?

The movie explores all of these topics.  And while much of what happens in it is nonsensical (particularly toward the end) and the character’s motivations aren’t always well developed, I think it does a decent job of exploring those topics.  In the end, it doesn’t take a definite stand on the questions, although it does have characters articulate the standard positions.

So, while I can’t exactly give it a glowing recommendation, I think it was worth the time and five bucks I spent renting it off of Amazon.

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Hi fellow patterns.  I’m going to be traveling for the next week or so, with unpredictable access to wifi, so blogging may be limited or nonexistent.  I do expect to be able to at least periodically check the comment threads from my phone, so feel free to comment on any of the recent posts.

In the meantime, also feel free to check out the archives, either on the sidebar or by clicking on the categories listed at the top of the site.

Thanks for visiting and talk with you soon!

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David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?

In this TED talk, David Chalmers gives a summary of the problem whose name he coined, the hard problem of consciousness.

via David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness? – YouTube.

It seems like people who’ve contemplated consciousness fall into two groups, those who are bothered by the hard problem, and those who are not.  In my mind, one of these camps is seeing something the other is missing.

Naturally, since I fall into the second one, I tend to think it’s those of us who are not bothered by the hard problem who are more aware of the fact that our intuitions are not to be trusted in this area.  No matter how much we learn about how the brain works, it will never intuitively feel like we’ve explained the experience of being us.  So, in my mind, the people bothered by the hard problem will never be satisfied, but that will not prevent us from moving forward.

Chalmers talks about three responses to the hard problem.  The first is Daniel Dennett’s view that the hard problem doesn’t really exist, that we will gradually learn more about how the brain works, solving each of the so called “easy problems”, until we’ve achieved a global understanding of the mind.  I have to say that my view is close to Dennett’s on this.

The second response is panpsychism, the idea that everything is conscious.  From what I’ve read about panpsychism, it’s a view that comes about by defining consciousness as any system that interacts with the environment, or something similar.  By that measure, even subatomic particles have some glimmer of consciousness.

But this is a definition of consciousness that doesn’t fit the common meaning of the word “consciousness”.  Using such an uncommon definition of a common word allows someone to say something that sounds profound, that everything is conscious, but that when unpacked using their specific definition, is actually a rather mundane statement, that everything interacts with its environment.  My reaction to such verbal jujitsu is to tune out, and that’s what I generally do when talk of panpsychism comes up.

Finally, Chalmers talks about a view of consciousness as it being something fundamental to reality, like maybe a fundamental force such as gravity or electromagnetism.  The idea is that consciousness arises through complex integration (which itself sounds more emergent than fundamental to me) and if we can just measure the degree of complex integration, we have a measure of consciousness.  This is a view that I’ve seen some physicists take.  It’s attractive because it might boil consciousness down to an equation, or a brief set of equations.

Personally, I think consciousness as fundamental or whatever is wishful thinking.  It’s an attempt to boil something complicated and messy down to a simple measurement.  And it still leaves the borderline between conscious and non-conscious entities as some magical dividing line that we can’t understand.

My own view is that consciousness, whatever else it is, is information processing.  The most compelling theories I’ve seen come from neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga and Michael Graziano, who see it as something of a feedback mechanism.  (Just for the record, my sympathy for these guys’ theories have nothing to do with me sharing a first name with them :-) )

The brain is not a centrally managed system.  It doesn’t have a central executive command center making decisions.  Rather, it processes information and makes decisions in a decentralized and parallel fashion.  What allows the brain to function somewhat in a unified fashion is a feedback mechanism that we call awareness.

Awareness is the brain assembling information about its current and past states.  It is an information schema that allows the rest of the brain to be aware of what the whole brain is contemplating.  It doesn’t really control what the brain does, but it can affect what the brain will decide to do.

If true, our internal experience is simply this feedback mechanism.  Is this the whole picture?  Almost certainly not.  But it is built on scientific evidence from neuroscience studies.  It will almost certainly have to be revised and expanded as more evidence becomes available.  But I think it is far more promising than talk of fundamental forces and the like.

Of course, even if it is true, it won’t satisfy those who are trouble by the hard problem.  Consciousness as a feedback mechanism and information model, still doesn’t get us to the intuitive feeling of being us.  I’m not sure that anything ever will.

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