Atoms versus Electrons

English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified t...
English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified to have transparent background. Français : Dessous d’un DVD (sur fond transparent) Frysk: DVD/dûbelskiif (Unterkant) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Being Digital” by Nicolas Negroponte, he touches in the Introduction on the irony of printing a physical book whose theme is the digital world and how we are moving holus bolus into it. Most human activities can be performed on line, and at the moment that we want to do them. We can watch a movie, do our banking and communicate face to face with others, and many other social things.

Nevertheless, there persists in many people a strong desire to do things the non-digital way. People go to the cinema to sit in uncomfortable seats, eat over expensive popcorn, to crane their necks at huge images on a vast screen and be blasted with a (usually) over loud sound track. They presumably return home, having breathed the same air and germs as dozens of others for a couple of hours, with ringing ears and throbbing heads.

The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valha...
The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valhalla, as it was in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why? They could have caught the same movie while sitting in their own comfortable chairs at home, with the volume set to a comfortable level, eating whatever snacks they fancy, all without the hassles of driving to the cinema, finding and paying for parking, going through ticketing and most importantly, at a time of their own choosing.

Why indeed. Mostly I think that it is the sense of occasion, of doing something special, that drives us to visit cinemas and theatres. There is the excitement of getting up and going out there, being social, going to an actual cinema, buying and eating actual popcorn and ice blocks, sitting in a seat made damp and sticky by some previous customer, of being blasted out of one’s seat by the sound system and blinded by the brightness of the pictures on the screen.

English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rho...
English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rhodes, Acropolis, Greece. Français : Le théâtre antique (restauré) de Rhodes, sur l’Acropole. Grèce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time it used to be that new movies would only released into cinemas, and they would then be circulated through the cinema chains, so you might wait, literally, years to see a particular movie. Less popular movies may not even have reached local cinemas if they did not make enough money.

While they were not a digital medium, video tapes started to erode the monopoly that the cinemas held. The local video store became an institution. Movies good or bad could be obtained locally, and the only restriction imposed by the movie companies was that tapes were not released for movies that were circulating in the cinemas.

English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Loo...
English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Looking north across North lane to Chapel Place. The video and DVD store was once Hufton’s grocers. Back then it housed 3 shops – see a picture from 1933 on (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the movie companies could not keep new movies under wraps for too long before illegal copies of their “blockbusters” became available so the delay before movies reached local outlets were reduced. A new category of movies – “straight to video” – became common. These were movies which the movie studios made which did not warrant being released through the cinema chains.

Video technology proved to be a mostly transient phenomenon. DVD and later Blue Ray technology was developed and this was true digital technology. A movie could be pressed onto one or two disks, and sound and video quality was hugely improved over both cinema and video tape technology. The era of the “Home Theatre” was born.

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Both video tapes and DVDs were susceptible to copying. This causes huge issues for the movie studios as, from their point of view, a DVD copied is one less DVD sold, and thus copying was, in their view, cutting into their profits. As a result, the DVD producers started encrypting their products, but of course they needed to let their customers view the DVDs that they have purchased.

It is likely that this encryption, plus the threat of prosecution for illegal copying deterred many people from casual copying, but a small minority are determined to circumvent such barriers, which they saw as preventing them from doing “legitimate” copying, for example for backup purposes. When a single game may cost more than $100, and a single scratch could render the disk useless, they argue that a backup of the DVD is essential.

One of Negroponte’s main points was that we are switching from transporting physical objects (atoms) to transferring only digital data (bits), and piracy is a case in point. It is easy to transfer the contents of a DVD if you can decrypt it and copying is merely the matter of a couple of clicks. Pirated (or decrypted) games will circulate on the Internet within hours of their release.

On the other hand, some enterprising software firms actually distribute their software on the Internet for anyone to download. All that you have to do is pay for the key to decrypt it. Others have found that if you allow someone to play a game, that if they like it enough they will pay for boost and assists as they play the game. These are known as “in app purchases” and are common in phone and tablet app downloaded for free.

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Much the same applies in the world of books. Most books are available in digital or ebook form and some people download thousands of free or decrypted ebooks are store them on their handheld devices. It makes me wonder if they are even going to read any of them, as I have about half a dozen books that I have downloaded which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Maybe this is a collector passion and not bibliophilia as such!

Some people do get a lot of pleasure from reading real books. They love the heft, the smell, the texture of a real book and this love of physical books may fade as people get used to reading on a screen, until, one day perhaps, real books will seem quaint and old-fashioned, just cinemas and theatres are tending to become.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the digital media, especially the subset of digital media that I can store on my computers. I like being able to watch what I want when I want to watch it. I like the easy portability of digital media. Although I can see the attraction of watching Robbie Williams or Lady Gaga in the flesh, I’ll pass on that and maybe watch them on YouTube instead, where I can watch their performance virtually, with clarity, with good sound. The mosh pit can have it to themselves!

Robbie Williams concert
Robbie Williams concert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



English: Feathers and wedges are being used to...
English: Feathers and wedges are being used to split a large slab of sandstone. A three pound sledge hammer is being used to drive the wedges into holes drilled in the stone. The crack is just visible as a ragged line connecting the holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Trust me, I know what I’m doing”. Sledge Hammer’s famous line encapsulates many things about trust in its seven words. The ironic twist is that the first iconic series ends with Hammer saying the words as he tries to dismantle an atomic bomb. He is not successful!

Trust is a belief that the person or thing that is trusted can be relied upon to do what is promised. There is trust between you and the bank. You trust them to look after the money that you hand over to them to invest and maybe pay you some interest. You also trust them to give you the money back when you request it. There may be conditions on the investment, such as minimum deposit periods or maximum withdrawals, interest rates and so on, but fundamentally you can get you money back.

California Bank & Trust Building in LA
California Bank & Trust Building in LA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly the bank may loan you money, under conditions, which you can use to purchase a house, or a boat, or for any other reasons. They trust you to pay back the loan sooner or later, together with interest, and have the right to pursue you through the law if you don’t repay it.

The money in your pocket requires you to trust in it. After all the value of ordinary coins and notes in terms of the metal and paper is negligible, although gold sovereigns are nowadays worth much more than their nominal one pound sterling. Every coin or note represents something much more nebulous than the distinct coins and notes. Early notes had a “promise to pay” written on them, with the signature of a financial authority to encourage people to trust in them as money.

English: .
English: . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hammer’s exhortation implies that his companions don’t trust him, which is ironic because, in a back-handed, gun-related way, he usually did. As is evidenced by the way that he encouraged a suicidal jumper to abandon his intents by shooting chunks out of the ledge that the jumper was standing on. His companions’ distrust was related to the non-standard way that he approached problems and their prior knowledge of his previous actions in such circumstances.

As in Hammer’s case, when two or more people interact, they need to trust each other in many ways. Threats are promises of harm, and there may be promises of benefits. Two people may form an alliance against a joint threat, and in such a case they need to trust each other. Each one trusts the other to back them up.

English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower
English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often conditions are written down in the form of a contract. All the things that are expected by both parties, that are promised by both parties, or as many of them as can be, are written down, and both parties make their mark or sign the document. The contract can be authorised by a third-party or each party may merely carry away a copy of the document.

A contract strengthens the trust between two parties. If a contract in place, goes the reasoning, then all parties know exactly what is required of them, and what the consequences are if one party or another doesn’t do what is required. If there is complete trust between two parties, then no contract would be required, of course, but there never is complete trust.

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However we trust other people all the time without contracts or other documentation. In fact we are sometimes too trusting. Sometimes nefarious characters arrive on our doorsteps and we let them in if they, for example, claim to be from the Gas Board. It is recommended that we always ask for proof of identity if someone who we don’t know knocks on the door. Of course we have to trust the proof of identification if any is proffered, and it could conceivably be faked.

This brings up and issue about trust – we can never be absolutely sure that we can trust someone. We could know someone very very well and still not be absolutely sure that we can completely trust them. The extent to which we cannot completely trust them may be very very small of course.

English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for con...
English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for contribution to clauses of Armenian hictory Русский: Викиорден Вардана Мамиконяна за вклад в статьи по истории Армении (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We cannot even completely trust someone when we have a contract with them. Unexpected occurrences may occur which are not covered by the contract, but relate the the matter that the contract covers. If one of the parties to the contract dies then what happens to the provisions of the contract? Well, there are laws, of course, that relate to contractual matters and it may be that lawyers are needed to sort such matters out.

There’s another sort of trust, other than trust between people. We trust the laws of science. If we throw something up into the air we expect it to come down again. We expect and trust that the sun will come up tomorrow, and it appears that we are justified in our trust. Through many millennia we have trusted that the whole is a sensible logical place where everything has a cause and cause and effect go hand in hand.

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There is a dissenting voice and that voice is the voice of religion. Religions espouse the concert of miracles, that is occasions when the laws of nature are violated, as for instance, water is changed to wine, or a flood covers and destroys the whole earth.

We may trust that the world is a logical place, but we cannot prove that it is. If we keep throwing stones into the air, it is conceivable that one might not come down again. While we can verify that throwing stones into the continues to work, we may for some reason experience a case where the stone does not fall to the ground again.

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If the stone doesn’t come down, our instinct is to look for a reason why it did not, rather than suspect that the law of gravity has been repealed. We trust the law of gravity. The stone may have lodged on a roof of course, or been caught by a passing bird. After we have considered all the possibilities then we might suspect that the law of gravity as we know it has failed.

So we pass it over to the physicists to look into the matter, and they would ponder and experiment, and eventually, we hope come up with a modification to the law of gravity to cover our “special case”. And we can trust the law of gravity again. For now.

Animation showing the motion of a small body (...
Animation showing the motion of a small body (green) in an elliptic orbit around a much more massive body (blue). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, the question arises, when we have found out all that there is to know about the Universe and so be able to predict anything with 100% accuracy. Well, suppose our knowledge of the laws of the Universe is 80% accurate. There’s an old adage that says that the first 80% of anything takes 80% of the time, and the remaining 20% also takes 80% of the time. In other words it is feasible that we could know all the laws of the universe and be able to apply them, but there probably isn’t enough time.

In the meantime, I’m going to trust that the sun is going to come up tomorrow, as, after all 80% is still pretty good!

English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò
English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Philosophers are Never Asked to Parties

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The philosopher went to a party. He grabbed a drink and looked around. After a while he looked around again and started to frown. His host came up to him and asked him why he was looking puzzled. The philosopher replied that he wasn’t sure that he was at a party.

The host looked around and everyone was chatting, drinking and eating or dancing. Music was playing and the lights had been dimmed. The host asked him why he wasn’t sure, and the philosopher replied that, while it appeared that he was at a party, he couldn’t be sure that he was, because it could be that, in spite of appearances, he wasn’t at a party and that all the people here could be merely pretending that it was a party.

English: Saul Kripke (philosopher) on juquehy ...
English: Saul Kripke (philosopher) on juquehy beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, if he asked anyone, they would say that it was a party, but they would say that whether or not it really was a party. When the host asked why anyone would go to the trouble to set up a fake party, he stated that he didn’t know, but if he could determine that it was a fake party, then that would be the next question. If it proved to be a real party then he could relax and enjoy himself. At this point that the philosopher found himself alone, as his host had left him to his musings.

There’s a saying that “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”. This saying satisfies most people most of the time, but (philosophers aside) doesn’t satisfy everyone, all of the time.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Birding Center, ...
Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Birding Center, Port Aransas, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a top politician is replaced mid-term, the person who replaces him or her often showers praise on him or her, and states how much the party is in debt to the “retiring” politician, who may be stepping down to “spend more time with family”, most people would recognise this for what it is, a political coup. Few would believe that the top politician wanted to resign and that he or she really had a choice.

In this case the metaphorical bird is most likely a turkey, but everyone insists that it is a duck. Even though it doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck, and doesn’t even walk like a duck.

English: a male and female domestic turkey
English: a male and female domestic turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s pretty easy for us to detect the coup for what it is and mostly the media will report it as a coup, but the sceptical philosopher has no easy way to determine if he should relax and enjoy himself or go home. He knows about the political coup and sees this happen fairly often. Something happens and it is presented in one way, and everyone knows that this “duck” is not in fact a duck. So, why could not the same be true about the party?

The basic question that underlies the philosopher’s dilemma is “How do we know what we know?”, which a branch of philosophy that philosophers call “Epistemology“. When we read in the papers that a top politician has stepped down, or we go to a party, most people are quite aware of what is going on. We base our awareness on previous knowledge of prior political coups and previous parties.

English: Cartoon expression of Frank Jackson's...
English: Cartoon expression of Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument. One of the popular thought-experiment discussed in philosophers of mind. 日本語: 心の哲学における有名な思考実験。マリーの部屋。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are quite happy to apply the negative (he didn’t really want to resign) and the positive (it’s a great party!) to these situations based on experience. The philosopher can’t do that, as this leads to the “problem of induction”. Maybe in the last three coups the politician didn’t want to resign, and maybe the last three gatherings were in fact parties, but this time it may be different and the philosopher has the problem of knowing one way or the other.

Well, actually the philosopher has the problem of needing to know one way or the other. A true philosopher is a sceptical about everything he sees or hears or otherwise experiences, but there is a fundamental problem with the issue of “knowing”.

English: Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid...
English: Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads: IGNORANCE IS THE CVRSE OF GOD KNOWLEDGE IS THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you tell a philosopher that the sun will rise tomorrow, he or she may ask you how you know it will. If you reply that you know it because the sun came up yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, the philosopher will question how you know that what happened in the past will happen will happen in the future. He will point out that if you toss a coin and it turns up heads three times in a row, that it doesn’t mean that it will turn up heads the next time it is tossed. It’s a 50:50 chance that that it will come up tails.

If you then appeal to science the philosopher can point out that science is built on theories and experiments to disprove them. No experiment can prove a theory as such because you can do as many experiments as you like which turn out to agree with the theory and the philosopher can suggest that one more experiment might disprove the theory, and if it does, bang goes the theory.

Electrolysis experiment
Electrolysis experiment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, if a theory is any good, then it won’t be completely destroyed by an experiment that goes against the theory. No, it is more likely that the theory is patched up to take account of the errant data, and the process goes on. Also if the theory is any good any experiment which contradicts it is likely to happen at the extremes of the domain of the theory, and it can be usefully used for the vast majority of cases that don’t occur in those extremes.

What about the philosopher at the party? He can prove one way or another that the gathering is really a party, and not something else. His host has a couple of options at least. Firstly he can suggest that the philosopher takes it as a working hypothesis that it really is a party. Then he can take part, and if he enjoys himself, that doesn’t disprove the working hypothesis. Secondly the host can find another philosopher and introduce the two, who can then jointly discuss the validity of the hypothesis (that it is a real party).

Faith Happens
Faith Happens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or thirdly, he can avoid asking a philosopher to any of his parties.

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Consciousness continues to amaze and elude

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I make no excuse for returning to the topic of consciousness. It’s a phenomenon that, apparently, everyone experiences, and almost certainly some animals experience it too. However, it is the ultimate in subjectiveness. No one except yourself knows how you experience consciousness.

It can’t currently be measured and we can only detect it by the behaviour of a person. The old chestnut of a comatose patient coming round with hovering relatives and medical staff is familiar to all. “He’s coming round!” says a person at the bedside as the patient’s eyes flicker and his muscles twitch.

English: Man in coma still not responding to s...
English: Man in coma still not responding to stimuli. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a reliable way of determining consciousness. People have surfaced from comas or anaesthetics and have reported that contrary to the physical evidence they were in fact conscious for at least some of the time when they were comatose. Also, deep brain scans have shown changes which may indicate that the patient was responding to question in that his brain patterns changed, which has led to a medical furore. There is disagreement as to whether or not the changes in the brain indicate that the patient was in fact conscious.

Definition of “Conscious”

a. Characterized by or having an awareness of one’s environment and one’s own existence, sensations,and thoughts. See Synonyms at aware.

b. Mentally perceptive or alert; awake: The patient remained fully conscious after the local anesthetic was administered.
2. Capable of thought, will, or perception: the development of conscious life on the planet.

The fact that consciousness is an objective phenomenon (so far as we can currently tell) means that we can only subjectively assess if it exists in a person. Even if a person behaves as if he or she were conscious, feeling pain, drinking beer, doing all the things that a conscious person would do, how does one know that this person is actually a conscious person? It is conceivable that what looks like a person is a sort of zombie, programmed to behave exactly like a conscious person would behave.

English: zombie
English: zombie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(These philosophical zombies are not like the usual cinematic concept of a zombie – they look like ordinary people, they have not died and revivified, bits do not fall off them, and they don’t have a hunger for brains. It’s a technical philosophical term).

The short answer is that there is currently no objective was to tell. Everyone except yourself might be a zombie. Erm, although I subjectively know that I am not, which might mean that I am the only conscious person in a world of zombies. It’s probably simplest to argue, that I am conscious, and I appear to be little different to everyone else, so it would be silly to argue that everyone else is a zombie. It’s much more likely that we are all subjectively conscious in our own heads.

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Consciousness appears to be an aspect of the brain/mind. If parts of the brain are destroyed, or momentarily shocked by a blow, consciousness ceases and the person becomes unconscious. As above, though, it is conceivable that a person might not be able to move or respond, but still be conscious in the prison of their skull. It sounds like a particularly unpleasant fate.

Consciousness appears to be an emergent property of the brain/mind, because there does not appear to be a particular part of the brain that is related to consciousness as such. I think that it is fair to say this, though I haven’t delved into the subject much recently, though I do read things as I write these posts. In doing this I read an article on The Time website which hits many of the same high notes as I’ve hit here. It’s nice when I find an article that does that!

Emergent (software)
Emergent (software) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An emergent phenomenon is something like a family or a sports team or a termite nest. The emergent phenomenon is not implicit in individual members of the family or the sports team or the termite nest, but all the members make up a new entity which has an identity of its own.

Emergent phenomenon rely on the synergistic effect of all the members working in a concerted way to achieve more than a single individual can achieve by themselves. (Emergent phenomenon are not restricted to social interactions – water is wet, though an individual water molecule cannot really be considered to be wet in itself).

Synergy-reaching-with-kite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It follows that, just as the higher animals band together into families, bands and packs, which is an emergent phenomenon seen in humans societies, that the brains/minds of some animals are likely to experience the emergent phenomenon of consciousness, as they behave as if they do. It is highly unlikely that consciousness only evolved in one species, though of course it is possible.

Opponents of the idea that animals may exhibit consciousness suggest that we are anthropomorphising when we detect conscious behaviour in animals, and that they may be be zombies (in the philosophical sense of the word), and that the apparent consciousness is merely behaviours that are instinctive.

English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczare...
English: A German Shepherd dog Polski: Owczarek niemiecki (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, no one knows for sure if animals do experience consciousness or not. I rather feel that it is likely that they do, and the extent to which they do is determined by how sophisticated their minds and brains. Certainly, I feel it is unlikely that consciousness is controlled by a genetic on/off switch and that it evolved in animals in the same way as any other trait, that is gradually, and our near relatives on the genetic tree are to some extent at least conscious.

If this is so, then consciousness in animals other than ourselves inform ethics – we should treat animals as if they are conscious beings, as far as we can. I read a science fiction story once in which every being on the earth got a boost in brain function as a result of the earth leaving any area of space where a brake was put on brain function by some physical field or similar phenomenon.

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The human race immediately became super-intelligent, and apes became at least as intelligent and conscious as we were. Also other animals, which we used as food sources became to some extent aware. As the story ended one of the characters was musing on this fact and suggested that maybe a religion of self-sacrifice could be given to these animals so that we could continue to eat them. I’d suspect that, more likely, the human race would become vegetarian! Or possibly, as suggested in the story, we would employ the apes to do the dirty work for us.

Animal husbandry
Animal husbandry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)