The Burren is a natural wonder of the natural world. Situated in the west of Ireland it is an area of outstanding beauty that should be on everyone’s bucket list. It consists of a huge area of limestone outcrops and pavements, with brightly flowered plants living precariously but abundantly in the joints and cracks in the limestone. As I said, everyone should visit it.
This is brief post to keep the chain going. Normal service will resume when we get back.
As I am travelling, visiting relatives, my next few posts are going to be brief. I’ve flown to Singapore for two days and then on to London. In a day or two we go on to Ireland, which I have never visited.
One interesting moment on the trip was when I was trying to post a photo of the plane’s progress screen to Facebook via the on board WiFi while we were way out over the ocean! While I could post text, I couldn’t get the image to upload.
My photos are mostly not on this device, but I may move some up to post here later. To finish this brief post I will post a picture of a spring time rain shower from the window in my sister’s house. Fortunately the weather hasn’t been too bad so far.
Suppose two men are marooned on a remote island somewhere. At first each is unaware that the other is there, but eventually they meet. Suppose that for some reason they don’t want to join up, but they do want to interact. So they set about working out ways to share the island, and obviously they want to live amicably until they are rescued.
So they might draw an imaginary line across the island. A can only go into B’s half as long as B is aware and approves, and vice versa. Maybe it turns out that food is easier to come by in B’s half, but there is plenty for both. B allows A to venture into parts of his half of the island and A drops off a few items that he has gathered as thanks.
Later on they find that A’s part of the island has the best spots to catch fish or something, and they come to an agreement about that. Slowly but surely they build up a set of rules on how to behave and live on the island in harmony.
One can imagine that an arbitrarily complex set of rules may be developed, and these rules could be further complicated if a third man, C, were to join them on the island.
You can probably see where I am going with this. As the population of the island rises, more and more rules will become necessary, or if not necessary, useful, and at some stage someone will have the idea of writing them down. The rules become laws and eventually attract all the mechanisms of a full legal system.
While browsing around while thinking about this sort of thing, I came across a review of “Day Z”, which the author of the review describes as “A Video Game Without Rules”. The author describes how the ability to do nasty things to others leads to characters in the game, especially established players doing nasty things to other players, usually new spawned players.
It’s possible that the behaviour of players in the game is merely an early stage in its evolution, and it may be that later on stronger players may band together to help the newly spawned players and the people who treat new players badly will be marginalised or persuaded to change their ways. One can hope.
Another dismal view of the island scenario was that of William Golding who wrote “The Lord of the Flies”, where a group of English schoolboys are marooned on an island, perhaps as the result of an atomic war. They soon revert to savagery and murder, overriding the civilised urgings of Piggy and Ralph. As Piggy says “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill? … law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?” The rest of the boys obviously want to hunt and kill.
Nevertheless, the process of generating laws by discussion and agreement was probably along the lines that I have suggested above. No doubt there were many tries to achieve this process which failed in the manner that things appear to have failed in the video game and how they were depicted as failing in “the Lord of the Files”, before a working system of laws was achieved.
It’s possible that the magic ingredient was the evolution of system of magistrates and a method of enforcing the laws. With a supposedly impartial system to decide the rights of a matter, and a special force or police system to enforce the laws, the weak individual would be protected against the stronger.
In early days, the system of laws and the enforcement of them would have been vested in the priests and spiritual leaders, who would have controlled the enforcement system, probably “Temple Guards” or similar.
Where do kings fit in? The rulers were often not priests themselves, but the rulers were seen to rule by divine right, so there was a tight link between the rulers and the religious leaders. Kings such as Hammurabi supposedly led the way in law making, though no doubt there was much political to and fro between the kings and the priests.
These days, in many countries the law has been secularised and in many laws are decided by the government of the country, and are arbitrated by a separate branch of the administration called the justice system, and the enforcement is carried out by the police and retribution by the prisons system.
Lawmaking, justice and enforcement are in many countries legally independent of one another so that, for example, the government cannot manipulate the system for its own advantage. The principle is that justice should be independent of lawmaking and the enforcement systems.
How does all this affect the man in the street? Well, in practise, not very much, usually, at least not directly. When driving along the road, a motorist is aware that the speed limit is so-and-so, and usually keeps to it, more or less. He or she treats it as an advisory rather than a restriction, in that it is taken as the top speed that is safe for that road.
The man in the street also uses laws for his own protection. He will assume that the consumer protection laws back him up when he purchases something which it transpires is defective and will feel confident in returning it. In most cases the retailer would not be too upset by someone returning a defective product as in most cases the retailer would want a happy customer and can return the product to the manufacturer.
In general, laws work best when they conform with the principle of “natural justice” or what would generally be considered fair. It is not fair for example for someone to keep others awake by holding noisy all night parties, and in most cases the law will support the sleepless neighbours over the noisy one, but it could come down to a matter of perception.
Things like disputes about access to properties can hinge on such matters and are very often cannot easily be settled. The law has been evolving for thousands of years, but it can’t solve every dispute, although we would be worse off without it. It has to change as the world is changing, so it is constantly evolving. We cannot expect it to be perfect.
Of all emergent phenomenaconsciousness is the most mysterious, probably because we don’t seem to have a handle on the concept. We don’t understand how it arises and probably not much about what it comprises and how it works. We know that it, apparently, can be switched on and off, as when we go to sleep or are sedated or knocked out by some accident or other.
It is only marginally under our control. In general terms we can be conscious or awake, but not conscious of anything specific. We can be in a reverie or day dream, or we can be doing something semi-automatically, like driving. But we can “snap to” and be conscious of something specific, as when some event happens while driving that needs our full attention. Or the door bell snaps us out of our reverie, or we notice a cloud that looks like a dog, or cat, or, more likely, a sheep!
Even when we are fully awake and concentrating on the idiot who just pulled out in front of us, we perform actions of which we are not fully aware, such as change down a gear or put on the brakes. We are aware of these actions to some extent as they are not fully automatic, like the movement of our legs when we walk, but we don’t have to think about which pedal to press or how to move the gear lever to change gear, as we did when we were learning to drive.
I might have said before, in a previous post, that I don’t think that it is feasible that consciousness is only found in mankind. Chimpanzees share 98.8% of our genes, so it reasonable that they share many of our abilities and they can certainly use tools and reason. It is unlikely that consciousness is an expression of something in the 1.2% of the genes that are unique to humans. Chimpanzees show fear and happiness , they sulk, they get angry and show other emotions. While the expression of emotions doesn’t prove that they are conscious, I find it hard to imagine a conscious entity would not express its consciousness through emotions, and that a non-conscious entity would show any emotions.
If chimpanzees are conscious animals as we are, then it follows that other animals are conscious entities to some extent or other. Some people believe that it has been demonstrated that most animals have consciousness, but I consider to be very likely, but not yet proved. Even a mouse, a “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” as Robert Burns put it, demonstrates its fear, and with its own species, anger. It is unlikely that a mouse is *as* aware as a human or even a chimpanzee, and it would be very difficult to find self consciousness in a flatworm though.
But then again, consciousness is related to mind and to the brain, and the brain is the major part of the “Central Nervous System” in mammals. It is possible that the more complicated a brain the more consciousness a animal possesses. Even a flatworm possesses a very simple brain-like structure called a ganglion. So, maybe, a flatworm posses a spark of consciousness, an atom of awareness of the most rudimentary sort.
Or there may be some threshold below which consciousness is impossible. A simple eyespot, such as flatworms possess cannot form an image. To form an image a much more complicated eye structure is required, so there must some limit of animal complexity at which vision can be said to be possible. A fuzzy limit, maybe, but a limit nevertheless.
If consciousness is truly an emergent phenomenon of the brain, the what properties of the brain could enable consciousness? Just as the chemical and electrical properties of watermolecules are what enable the emergent property of wetness, some features of the brain and its shadow partner, the mind, must lead in some way to the phenomenon of consciousness.
The most obvious characteristic of the brain that really differentiates the brain from other organs is the concentration of neurons, billions of them, each connected to thousands of others by synapses. The number of connections is immense, but sheer complexity in itself does not imply consciousness.
In the case of emergent phenomena in general, it seems to me that it is easier to work from the top down as it were, the macro and consider what micro properties could feasibly cause the phenomenon. If we look at the wetness of water and consider that water is made up of molecules with physical, chemical and electrical characteristics we can at least speculate that the wetness of water is at least partly caused by the way that the molecules stick to and move across other molecules in a surface such as the skin. The water molecules are able to stick and let go and move over other molecules in a way that wets a surface, and forms a concave meniscus in a tube in a characteristic way.
In comparison mercury atoms have different electrical chemical and physical characteristics. They don’t form molecules in the same way, and while they slide over one another, they don’t stick to other molecules and let go in the way that water molecules do. Consequently mercury atoms don’t wet surfaces like water molecules do and a mercury meniscus is convex not concave.
So, we can work out, in rough terms, why water is wet, by comparing water and mercury, and noting their micro-properties. Can we achieve the same with the phenomenon of consciousness? Well, the brain is a computation engine of sorts, and so maybe we can compare it to a computer. Computers are not (yet) conscious and brains contain minds which are conscious. Can we make any guesses based on that?
You can probably tell from the questioning way that I am discussing this topic that I don’t have any firm opinions on the matter. There are a couple of differences that I will point out though.
Computers are highly organised and computational functions and memory functions are completely separate, physically and computationally. A computer is also clock driven, with each operation taking up exactly the same number of “clock ticks” each time it is performed. In contrast, while a brain does have areas in which functions seem to reside, and a particular area may “light up” every time one raises a finger for example, memory seems to be more diffuse in its location, as compared to a computer.
Secondly, a brain’s “architecture” changes over time, whereas a computer’s does not. A brain may make new connections (which may have something to do with memory), while a computer stays as it was when built.
Thirdly, a brain is enormously more complex than any computer yet built, at least in terms of the number of interconnections in it and its ability to re-wire itself with new connections.
I don’t know if these differences are significant in terms of explaining the problem of consciousness. I suspect that they are at the root of the problem, but I could be totally wrong. It may be the “programs” that run in the brain and computer that make the difference, but that just moves the issue to another arena.
And I’ve run out of space. I could touch on the “android” question, but I’ll leave that for now.
Everyone loves a sunny day. Well, most people, most of the time love a sunny day. A farmer in the middle of a drought might prefer a substantial downpour. Sometimes, too, it can be too hot and that can be unpleasant. And you have to be careful of the sun, because too much exposure leads to sunburn and can lead to skin cancers.
Most of the time, though, people enjoy a sunny day. Here in the southern hemisphere Christmas falls in the middle of summer, so there is some hope of a sunny and warm Christmas Day. Some people roll out the barbecue and cook the Christmas lunch on that. Some have even decided that the “Christmas Barbie” is “traditional” and hold one even if the weather is not particularly good.
For most people, it’s easy to get enough vitamin D in New Zealand – our bodies produce it whenever we get the sun on our skin.
But they also warn :
However, because of the risks of sunburn and skin cancer, we need to be careful how much sun we get.
So, it’s a balancing act. Local newspapers give estimates of “burn time” and kids are much more covered up in the sun than we ever were when we were kids. It doesn’t seem to slow them down, though!
Incidentally, why doesn’t someone develop a sunscreen lotion that doesn’t feel so disgusting and sticky? Or is it just me?
When summer is over and shorter days and more inclement weather is here, most people stay inside more and there is a danger, for some people, of “Seasonal Affective Disorder” or SAD (I wonder how long it took to come up with that name and acronym!). People with this disorder suffer depression and other symptoms which can be relieved by subjecting them to periods of intense artificial light. Of course this may just be an effect and not a full-blown disorder. SAD does not appear to be related to a deficiency of Vitamin D, as the quoted Wikipedia article states that Vitamin D treatment doesn’t remove the symptoms of SAD.
It appears then, that a sunny day does more than give you a dose of Vitamin D – it also gives your spirits a lift. Even if I am working and have to stay indoors, I find life much more pleasant if the sun is shining outside.
Of course we get sunny days in other seasons than summer, don’t we? In winter it is often bitingly cold, but people bundle up and head outside to enjoy the sunshine nevertheless. In the autumn a sunny day can be quite warm, leading to the term “Indian Summer”. In the spring a sunny day is often warmer than preceding days, especially in comparison to the cold, dark days of winter, and presages the spurt of growth that is the forerunner of summer. It may be a sunny day will be heralded by the songs of birds mating and nesting, and shoots of new grass growth and buds on trees may be evident, especially in deciduous plants which are native to colder climates.
Whatever the season sunny days are generally welcomed as a chance to get outside and “do things”. This may be as simple as gardening or as rigorous as some sport or other. Even something like taking the dog for a walk is always better on a sunny day. Bad weather may preclude some sports, such as mountain climbing, but with a clear morning and a good weather forecast and you can feel confident of tackling that peak, and standing on the top you can admire the view.
Mothers and pre-school teachers look forward to sunny days. If rain keeps the kids inside, they get bored easily and that can lead to upset and even tantrums. On sunny days they can be urged outside to play on the trampoline or chase the chickens or whatever and they are not underfoot and don’t have to be kept busy.
In the biblical story of Noah and the Ark, Noah and his family, together with all the animals endured 40 days and nights of rain, before, eventually, seeing the sun and the rainbow. Imagine for a moment that the story was true. How glad would they have been to finally see the sun, and what sort of state would they have been in? They would probably have been bickering, playing cards with a pack of 51, arguing over the rules for checkers, blaming each other for not bringing along more beer, and arguing over whose turn it was to muck out the animals. The animals would not have been in a much better state either. The ducks arguing with the geese, the hyenas laughing at the dogs and the cats, not insisting, but expecting that everything would be done their way and for their benefit and comfort.
As I look outside now, it is pouring down! But on Friday it was beautiful and we took the grand-kids to visit Wellington’s Botanical Gardens. We parked in the CBD (which was expensive) and took the Cable Car up to the Gardens. The sun shone and the cicadas were making a din in the trees. We visited the Cable Car Museum, walked to Carter Observatory and walked down into the actual gardens by way of the kids’ playground. Finally we went through the floral displays and on to the Lady Norwood Rose Gardens. You can’t beat Wellington on a good day, and this was one of them.
Our local rugby team has made it to the final of a competition (they won!) and naturally supporters are getting ready for the final match. They are organising coaches to take people to the match and no doubt there will be a good turn out. This got me thinking about how humans like to form bands and groups and supporter groups.
I think that banding together is at heart a self-protection thing. A human who belongs to a group gets supported by the group and reciprocally supports the group himself. In many cases the group is in competition against other groups of humans for a scarce resource such as food or territory, or in the case of sport points on the board of the elusive trophy. There is a synergy when people work together.
It’s not always humans versus humans though. A group may be formed to overcome some physical difficulty or to provide something that an individual can’t provide or achieve by themselves. That’s why travellers form caravans to cross deserts and a group of individuals might be able to buy a bigger boat together than they could have bought alone and take turns using it. Musicians of all genres usually form groups, at least to get started.
Forming a group allows individuals to specialise – in a hamlet or village one person becomes the smith, another the baker, another the mayor and another the constable, each person his or her particular skills in the role.
The role of supporters is to encourage and assist but not to actually take part in the contest or enterprise, but sometimes the line is blurred. For example the coach and trainer might not take part in a game, but in some ways they are part of the team. The supporters on the sidelines, yelling encouragement and advice, are even less part of the team, but they can certainly help out, and they form a larger group surrounding the team.
Sometimes, of course, two groups of supporters clash. This is generally agreed to be a bad thing, but if you take a step back and think about it, it is to be expected, but not encouraged. It is an unwritten but basic rule of sport that the conflict, physically at least, stay on the field of play. Non-physical conflict, such as chants, banners and team regalia, is permitted between opposing spectators and even encouraged. “Get behind the team” is a rousing call for supporters. No wonder the non-physical conflict fairly often becomes physical.
The biggest ‘teams’ are countries, which strike me as being somewhat artificial in this day and age. Can one supergroup really speak for people who might be thousands of miles away? There may be an aboriginal population in a country that has far more inhabitants of immigrant origins, and these people may not consider themselves to be truly part of the nation in which they reside. Some nomadic people may travel through several countries, and may not consider themselves to be a part of any of them. The sheer size of modern countries almost invites the formation of ethnically or geographically ‘seperatists’ groups.
Mankind probably started out as family groups, and were probably nomadic. When they settled down (perhaps as a result of developing agriculture) it would seem natural to settle down in larger groups, maybe two or three families to provide defence against those still travelling around. As mankind spread and became more numerous these little settlements would grow into towns, with inhabitants specialising into roles like the smith or baker mentioned above.
At some stage strong leaders became feudal lords. This appears to have been common, but was possibly not universal. Eventually the lords and barons gave their allegiance to a king or overlord and a number of small (by current standards) states were formed, sometimes based around a city as in Sparta in Greece or sometimes based in a geographical area. The debatably mythical Arthur around the 5th or 6th centuries in Britain was supposedly king of Britain, although at that time there were probably several kingdoms in what is now Britain, and Athelstan is usually considered the first true English king.
The nations of the world are these days largely static in shape and size, but they do still change now and then. Czechoslovakia split apart in 1993, and the Soviet Union (USSR) formed in 1922 and split up in 1991.
The next logical step in this process, one would have expected, would be the formation of a global entity, grouping the whole of mankind into one huge group, but this has not happened. There are a number of global entities, notably the United Nations, but they tend to concentrate on specific areas of endeavour rather than being the World Government that would have been expected. There are ‘blocs’ of similarly inclined countries but these also don’t have the spread of activities that would make them a ‘super-government’.
It may be that the only thing that would cause the formation of a super-group encompassing all of humanity would be an encounter with hostile and destructive aliens, but the chances of that would be very small.