Kindle Oasis: a quick review

I read a lot of books, and as I’ve posted about before, the lion share of those books these days are Kindle e-books.

E-books aren’t for everyone, but for the last several years they’ve been my preferred way to consume a book.  I love the way I can buy a book and immediately start reading it, the fact that I can quickly search the book for specific words or phrases, that my large library of e-books is accessible from anywhere, and that it doesn’t take up any space in the house.  (A house that, despite an epic cleanup last  year, still has a lot of space taken up with shelves and mounds of traditional books.)

I started with a Kindle 2 in 2009, and after a year or so of tentative experimentation, pretty much went all digital.  After a while, I discovered the iOS Kindle app and started reading on my phone and iPad.  Within a few months, I almost never used the old Kindle device and eventually retired it.

The nice thing about reading books on iOS devices (and occasionally Android ones) was that I could see the color version of the book cover and the user interface was much more responsive.  But it’s always had a couple of drawbacks: an unreadable display outside in the sun and eyestrain caused by the screen backlight.  Seeing my phone screen in the sun is frequently an issue although I rarely attempt to read books outside, but the eyestrain thing has been an issue from time to time.  I’ve always handled it by minimizing the screen brightness and taking frequent breaks.

But given the improvement I’ve seen in my friends’ new Kindle Paperwhite devices, I decided it was time to try a dedicated Kindle again.  And as a voracious reader, I felt justified in splurging for the top of the line model: the Kindle Oasis.  (In reality, the price of this model is in the neighborhood of what I paid for the old device years ago.)

kindleoasisclosedsmallkindleoasisopensmallMy first impression of this thing was how small it is.  It’s not much bigger than my iPhone 7 and seems to be just as light.  It’s definitely smaller and lighter than the iPad I often read on.  But its battery life is far longer.  The included cover comes with an additional battery, which Amazon promises will last for months.  (Although that promise is based on 30 minutes of reading a day.  Yeah right.  I might get a week or two out of it, but that will be a lot more than I get out of the phone or tablet.)

The user interface on these new models is much more responsive than what I recall from my old one.  It’s still not as responsive as iOS devices, but then it costs a lot less, so pluses and minuses.  And the display is much sharper and clearer than the old model.  It really does look like printed text.  With the backlight off (it’s only needed in the dark), I was able to read from the device for hours with no more eyestrain than I would have gotten from reading a paper book.  For reading straight text, it’s working like a charm.

The loss of color is still noticeable when perusing the book library or catalog, but the amount of time I spend doing that is fleeting compared to the time actually spent in the books themselves.  I’m still waiting to see how well this device does for books with diagrams and tables, an area where I think Kindle on all devices has struggled somewhat, sometimes due to shoddy formatting from the publisher, but often simply due to limitations in the platform.

So, all in all, I’m pretty happy with it after a week of usage.  I had told a couple of friends I was picking one up, and they wanted to know my impressions, hence this post.  I’m definitely not going to stop reading on my phone when waiting for an appointment or in the grocery check-out line, and the iPad or laptop may still get some action for books with lots of tables and illustrations, but the Oasis seems poised to get the lion share of my home reading.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Recommendation: The Stars Are Legion

thestarsarelegioncoverOccasionally on this blog, when pondering the far future, I’ve pushed back on the idea that the long term fate of civilization is to be machine robotic type life, instead noting that a truly advanced civilization would instead be engineered life, that it would make a lot more sense for its “machines” to be biological systems.  Admittedly, at some point, the distinction between engineered biology and very advanced machinery starts to become blurred.

Kameron Hurley’s ‘The Stars Are Legion‘ appears to take this idea very much to heart.  From one point of view, this is a classic sci-fi tale of an interstellar generation ship where things have deteriorated and everyone has forgotten the original purpose of the voyage.  But in this tale, the interstellar ark appears to be an artificial miniature solar system, with a miniature sun in the center orbited by innumerable world ships, all of which are called “the Legion”, with each world ship a living entity with its own homeostasis system.

The story characters live in these world ships.   They have the ability to travel between them on sentient single person rider ships.  Naturally, there is warfare between the worlds, with certain worlds conquering others and raiding their resources.  Things are not well in the Legion.  Many, perhaps most worlds appear to be dying, rotting.  The warfare is often about extracting resources to survive.

The interiors of the world ships are very strange; being biological systems, they are…gooey, with spongy walls and floor absorbing any spilled liquids (including blood), large arteries and veins running through the structures, and many other hallmarks of a living organism, such as the rooms coming across more like organelle compartments than traditional rooms.

Just about everything in this story is gooey, including the spray-on spacesuits.  And the characters often have a comfort level with the integrated biology of their environment that will leave many readers queasy.

But the strangeness doesn’t end there.  It quickly becomes apparent that the characters in the book are all female.  No males are mentioned.  Although as the story continues, it also becomes evident that the engineered biology doesn’t stop with the environment, but also applies to the characters themselves, and everything is not how it seems.

The story here is more than just an exploration of engineered biology.  It’s a searing story of two characters working to save their world, with these characters providing the two narrative viewpoints.  Here, Hurley takes a technique used in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and James S.A. Corey’s Expanse books, with each chapter named for that chapter’s viewpoint character.  But it’s taken to a new level with the viewpoints both being first person and in present tense, providing an intimate and immediate feel to the writing.

Shifting viewpoints is something that has historically happened in third person accounts, but it’s fairly rare in first person books, mainly due, I think, to the fact that it can be very easy to get confused about whose viewpoint we’re getting at any one point.  (Although there has been a trend in recent years pairing one first person protagonist with other third person narratives.)  But here we have two first person accounts.  It works because of the chapter title trick telling us upfront whose viewpoint we’re getting.  It’s a technique that I’m wondering if we’ll see more of.

Hurley’s world in this book is gooey, gory, violent, and often surreal.  In many ways, it reminds me of early Orson Scott Card stories from the 1980s.  I found it mind bending in ways that few books manage to pull off.  If you’re looking for something bizarre and thought provoking, and can tolerate violence and a lot of fairly gross description, I highly recommend it.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

What do scientific theories actually tell us about the world?

One of the things that’s exciting about learning new things, is that often a new understanding in one area sheds light on what might seem like a completely separate topic.  For me, information about how the brain works appears to have shed new light on a question in the philosophy of of science, where there has long been a debate about the epistemic nature of scientific theories.

Spacetime lattice Image credit: mysid via Wikipedia

Spacetime lattice
Image credit: mysid via Wikipedia

One camp holds that scientific theories reflect reality, at least to some level of approximation.  So when we talk about space being warped in general relativity, or the behavior of fermions and bosons, there is actually something “out there” that corresponds to those concepts.  There is something actually being warped, and there actually are tiny particles and/or waves that are being described in particle physics.  This camp is scientific realism.

The opposing camp believes that scientific theories are only frameworks we build to predict observations.  The stories we tell ourselves associated with those predictive frameworks may or may not correspond to any underlying reality.  All we can know is whether the theory successfully makes its predictions.  This camp is instrumentalism.

The vast majority of scientists are realists.  This makes sense when you consider the motivation needed to spend hours of  your life in a lab doing experiments, or to endure the discomforts and hazards of field work.  It’s pretty hard for geologists to visit the antarctic for samples, or for biologists to crawl through the mud for specimens, if they don’t see themselves in some way as being in pursuit of truth.

But the instrumentalists tend to point out all the successful scientific theories that could accurately predict observations, at least for a time, but were eventually shown to be wrong.

The prime example is Ptolemy’s ancient theory of the universe, a precise mathematical model of the Aristotelian view of geocentrism, the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe with everything revolving around it.    For centuries, Ptolemy’s model accurately predicted naked eye observations of the heavens.

But we know today that it is completely wrong.  As Copernicus pointed out in the 1500s, the Earth orbits around the sun.  Interestingly, many science historians have pointed out that Copernicus’ model actually wasn’t any better at making predictions than Ptolemy’s, at least until Galileo started making observations through a telescope.  Indeed, the first printing of Copernicus’ theory had a preface from someone, probably hoping to head off controversy, saying the ideas presented might only be a predictive framework unrelated to actual reality.

For a long time, I was agnostic between realism and instrumentalism.  Emotionally, scientific realism is hard to shake.  Without it, science seems little more than an endeavor to lay the groundwork for technology, for practical applications of its findings.  Many instrumentalists are happy to see it in that light.  A lot of instrumentalists tend to be philosophers, theologians, and others who may be less than thrilled with the implications of scientific findings.

However I do think it’s important for scientists, and anyone assessing scientific theories, to be able to put on the instrumentalist cap from time to time, to conservatively assess which parts of a theory are actually predictive, and which may just be speculative baggage.

But here’s the thing.  Often what we’re really talking about here is the difference between the raw mathematics of a theory, and its language description, including the metaphors and analogies we use to understand it.  The idea is that the mathematics might be right, but the rest wrong.

But the language part of a theory is a description of a mental understanding of what’s happening.  That understanding is a model we build in our brains, a neural firing pattern that may or may not be isomorphic with patterns in the world.  And as I’ve discussed in my consciousness posts, the model building mechanism evolved for an adaptive purpose: to make predictions.

In other words, the language description of a theory is itself a predictive model.  Its predictions may not be as precise as the mathematical portions, they may not be currently testable in the same manner as the mathematics (assuming those mathematics are actually testable; I’m looking at you string theorists), but it will still make predictions.

Using the Ptolemy example above, the language model did make predictions.  It’s just that many of its predictions couldn’t be tested until the availability of telescopes.  Once they could, the Ptolemy model quickly fell from favor.  (At least it was quick on historical time scales.  It wasn’t quick enough to avoid making Galileo’s final years miserable.)  As many have pointed out, it wasn’t that Copernicus’ model made precisely right predictions, but it was far less wrong than Ptolemy’s.

When you think about it, any mental model we hold makes predictions.  The predictions might not be testable, currently or ever, but they’re still there.  Even religious or metaphysical beliefs make predictions, such as whether we’ll wake up in an afterlife after we die.  They’re just predictions we may never be able to test in this world.

This means that the distinction between scientific realism and instrumentalism is an artificial one.  It’s really just a distinction between aspects of a theory that can be tested, and the currently untestable aspects.  Often the divide is between the mathematical portions and the language portions, but the only real difference there is that the mathematical predictions are precise, whereas the language ones are less precise, to varying degrees.

Of course, I’m basing this insight on a scientific theory about how the brain works.  If that theory eventually ends up failing in its predictions, it might have implications for the epistemic point I’m making here, for the revision to our model of scientific knowledge I think is warranted.

And idealists might note that I’m also making the assumption that brains exist, that along with the rest of the external world they aren’t an illusion.  I have to concede that’s true, and even if this understanding makes accurate useful predictions, within idealism, it still wouldn’t be mapping to actual reality.  But given that I’m also assuming that all you other minds exist out there, it’s a stipulation I’m comfortable with.

As always, it might be that I’m missing something.  If so, I hope you’ll set me straight in the comments.

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , | 75 Comments

Arrival, the shape of aliens, and bridging the communication barrier

arrival_movie_posterThis weekend, I watched the movie ‘Arrival‘.  It starts off with the now common scenario of several floating ships appearing in the skies around the world.  But unlike most movies in this mold, it focuses on humanity’s efforts to communicate with the aliens and understand why they’ve come.  The protagonist is an expert in linguistics.

I found this movie to be uncommonly intelligent and high quality science fiction, of a type that we rarely see in cinema.  I’ve heard it’s won and been nominated for various awards.  In my opinion, it’s well deserved.  I highly recommend it.

That said, I’m going to quibble with a couple of its aspects.  I won’t spoil anything that you wouldn’t see in the first act, but if having even bits of that spoiled bothers you, you may want to skip this post until you’ve seen it.

I’m not going to quibble with the existence of the aliens, or why they arrived when they did.  A common criticism I have of alien invasion movies is that the aliens usually choose to show up when we can resist them, rather than any of the previous 4.54 billion years when the planet was a sitting duck.  But I actually think the movie has a good answer for that, which I won’t spoil.

Okay, first quibble.  The movie goes out of its way to portray the aliens as utterly, well, alien.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this.  Too often, media sci-fi portray aliens as humans with maybe an extra bump on their forehead or in overall humanoid form but maybe with reptilian skin or something, together with all too human emotions and attitudes.  Historically, some of this came from technological constraints on what could be shown.  But with CG technology being what it is today, this excuse, still somewhat plausible for television, doesn’t really cut it for high production movies.

That said, in its attempt to make the aliens profoundly different, I think the movie ignores some simple realities.  Extraterrestrial life would undoubtedly be very different from Earth life, but the laws of physics put limits on just how strange it could be.

For example,we never see eyes on the aliens.  (Or at least I couldn’t ever make out any.)  Now, it’s possible that an alien that evolved in a consistently dark or opaque environment, such as an underground sea or in a thick opaque atmosphere, might never evolve vision.

But we see the aliens communicating visually, which implies some kind of ability to take in information from electromagnetic radiation (light).  And eyes weren’t a one time mutation in Earth history.  From what I’ve read, they evolved several times in independent evolutionary lines.  In other words, eyes are one of the features that evolution tends to converge on.  The aliens didn’t have to be portrayed with two stereoscopic eyes.  They could have had many, like on spiders.

The other is the overall body plan of the aliens.  They don’t come across as having much dexterity.  But as I’ve noted before, the only civilization producing species on this planet needed more than intelligence, but also the ability to physically manipulate the environment.  It’s why a primate species currently rules the planet instead of a cetacean, elephantine, corvine, or other type of intelligent species.

I’m not saying that the aliens needed to have humanoid body plans.  Ant-like bodies with prehensile limbs might have done the trick.  But the movie aliens needed to have better physical abilities than what was portrayed.  Their portrayed bodies might have been dexterous in a liquid environment, similar to cephalopods, but that didn’t appear to be the environment they were in.

My second quibble is with the effort to communicate with the aliens.  If you’ve seen the movie,  you understand this issue’s place in the plot, but the initial decision to translate written language doesn’t make that much sense.  As Seth Shostak of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has pointed out, it makes a lot more sense to attempt initial communication with pictures.

This makes sense when you consider that the earliest human writing evolved from using pictures to convey concepts.  Over time, the pictures got streamlined into symbols for each word or concept.  It was thousands of years before the idea of letters standing in for individual speech sounds developed.  Attempting to jump over all that with an utterly alien mind seems like the hard way to do it.

Of course, conveying complex information with pictures wouldn’t itself be easy.  For example, how do you get across the main question the humans had for the aliens, “Why have you come?”  But a series of pictures showing the alien ships approaching humans, followed by alternating pictures of humans dead or alive might have given the aliens a quick chance to make their intentions clearer.  And once you had a basic form of communication going, a common symbolic vocabulary could be worked out, eventually allowing more sophisticated exchanges.

A much tougher challenge might be if the aliens didn’t have visual senses.  Imagine trying to build a common vocabulary with a bat like alien that sensed the world through echolocation, or one that thought and moved on vastly different time scales, such as conscious trees.  But even then, we’d still live in the same universe, and there would have to be some common overlapping ways of perceiving the world.  It might come down to small model statues arranged in sequences to convey scenarios.

Of course, it’s always possible to engage in rationalizations to explain away these quibbles with the movie.  And as I indicated above, this is a movie that is far more intelligent than your typical sci-fi film.  Not the least because it gave me an excuse to talk about alien body plans and communication strategies 🙂

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

Split brain does not lead to split consciousness – University of Amsterdam

I’ve talked before about Roger Perry’s famous split-brain patient experiments.  Patients with severe epileptic seizures used to undergo a collosotomy, a procedure to cut the connections between the left and right hemispheres of their cerebrum.  It often helped alleviate their symptoms and, remarkably, the patients afterward remained mentally functional, at least to outside appearances.

Each hemisphere of the brain controls and receives sensory input from half the body.  What Perry and his colleagues discovered in their experiments, was that if sensory inputs going into the patient were isolated to one hemisphere or the other, each of the patient’s hemispheres were only aware of its own sensations, and with the language centers usually focused on the left hemisphere, the patient could usually only describe what they were seeing when the left hemisphere received it.

The fact that the patients, post-procedure, remained largely functional seemed to show that each hemisphere was effectively watching what the other half of the body did, and mentally confabulating the actions as its own.  It opened up the possibility that this happens even in healthy people, albeit to a lesser extent.

However, new research appears to show that this phenomenon may be more limited than previously thought:



A new research study contradicts the established view that so-called split-brain patients have a split consciousness. Instead, the researchers behind the study, led by UvA psychologist Yair Pinto, have found strong evidence showing that despite being characterised by little to no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, split brain does not cause two independent conscious perceivers in one brain. Their results are published in the latest edition of the journal Brain.

Source: Split brain does not lead to split consciousness

Assuming there are not any methodological issues with these new experiments (always a possibility), and given everything I’ve learned about the brain since first reading about the split brain patient experiments, I can’t say I find this too surprising.

The corpus collosum connects the cerebral hemispheres of the brain, but there are other regions which connect the two sides of the brain, mostly sub-cortical.  These areas are generally below the level of consciousness, but the information from them feeds into the cerebrum.

These results are also consistent with the phenomenon of blindsight, where a patient that has sustained damage to visual processing centers in the occipital lobe (part of the cerebrum) cannot consciously see  something, but if pressed, can often still identify it.  The reason for this is that while the optic nerve does feed into the cerebrum, it also branches off to sub-cortical regions such as the superior colliculus in the mid-brain region.  Again, the processing in those regions is below the level of consciousness (at least in humans), but it provides information, to a limited degree, to conscious regions.

It seems likely that, for the patients in the lower row of the image above, something similar is taking place.  Each hemisphere may not be able to consciously perceive what the other hemisphere is seeing, but communication in sub-cortical regions is bubbling up into the cerebrum, enabling them to make the determinations that they’re making in the new experiments.  Maybe.

But I’m not sure this necessarily justifies saying that the patient retains one unified consciousness.  It may be that it is less divided than previously thought, but definitely is more separate than the consciousness of healthy people.  Of course, I’m basing these remarks on the press release.  The actual paper may shed additional light.

I definitely plan to watch for any new developments in this area.  Or for any comments from Michael Gazzaniga, one of Perry’s assistants who are still around and writing.

Posted in Zeitgeist | 6 Comments

Being a beast machine

In my post on consciousness possibly being a simulation engine, I noted Anil Seth’s excellent Aeon article as one of the inspirations.  As it turns out, Seth talked at a TEDx conference and covered many of the same topics he addressed in that article.

As noted in my post, I think a lot of what Seth describes here is actually unconscious perception.  If I’m right, it’s when those predictive models trigger multiple emotional reactions from our limbic system and we have to do simulations on various courses of action to decide what to do, that what we call consciousness actually comes into the picture.

I like one point Seth makes about proprioception.  He demonstrates, using the famous rubber hand test, that proprioception is a construction, a model created by the brain based on exteroception (sense of the outside world, including the external body), and interoception (sense of internal body states).  It’s become fashionable to tout proprioception and many other related perceptions as senses beyond the basic ones.  But if these additional perceptions are built on top of the basic ones, I think calling them senses in and of themselves is questionable.

Seth’s closing points about the self are worth pondering.  The self is a model, in many ways similar to the models we create for the external world.  As a result, that model can be different from the reality.  It can be wrong, no matter how privileged our access to it might feel.

Idealists ask whether the external world exists, whether or not we live in a simulation.  What isn’t often appreciated is that we definitely do live in a simulation.  Each and every one of us lives inside a simulation constructed inside our brain, both of the outside world and of ourselves.  As Seth says, “a fantasy that corresponds with the reality”, except that the reality is often a simplified cartoonish view of the reality, one adaptive for survival but not necessarily for giving us an accurate view of the actual reality.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Two brain science podcasts worth checking out

As my long time readers will know, I’m very interested in the mind, and my preferred way to explore it is through science, notably neuroscience or cognitive psychology, or with science oriented philosophy.  With that in mind, I want to call your attention to a couple of podcasts I’ve been following for a while.

gingercampbellThe first is Dr. Ginger Campbell’s excellent Brain Science podcast.  The posting frequency isn’t very high, but most episodes are packed with interesting information.  The most common format is Campbell interviewing an author.  One of the recent episodes was an interview with Jon Mallatt, one of the authors of the book that has informed many of my recent posts on consciousness.  Older episodes feature neuroscientists whose work I’ve highlighted before, such as Michael Graziano and Michael Gazzaniga.

Some of the people and books that Campbell discusses do get pretty technical, but most of it seems oriented toward a science literate lay person.  Unfortunately, the older episodes are pay walled, but I’ve been impressed enough by the recent episodes to get a subscription to work my way through the archives.  I feel comfortable recommending this podcast for anyone with an interest in the brain and mind.

The other podcast is Brain Matters.  This is a much more hard core “inside baseball” show that often gets very technical, to the extent that I have trouble following many of the episodes.  It’s done by a group of neuroscience graduate students who most often are interviewing working neuroscientists.  As a result, the subjects can get somewhat arcane, with topics such as cortical columns, aphasia, mitochondria in neurons, or the tracing of particular neural circuits.  I don’t try to listen to every episode of this one, instead focusing on the ones where the title or description catch my interest.

Both of these podcasts can be subscribed to in the standard services.  (My subscriptions are through iTunes and the iOS Podcast app.)  Or they can just be listened to on their web sites.

If you know of any similar sources, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Posted in Zeitgeist | Tagged , , , , | 59 Comments