Here be Dragons

Dragon Green
Dragon Green (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dragons, big scaly fire breathing reptiles. So many of our folk tales and even many modern tales include dragons as an important component, usually as a hostile force. Of course in many tales the dragon is merely a device to give the hero some seemingly impossible difficulty to overcome.

Sometimes dragons are mere beasts, but in some tales they are intelligent, if malevolent, beasts. Smaug, in “The Hobbit” by J R R Tolkien is of the latter kind. He sits on a pile of treasure and is furious when Bilbo Baggins steals a golden cup. He later accuses Bilbo of trying to steal from him (which is true).

Smaug as he appears in the animated film.
Smaug as he appears in the animated film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The patron saint of England is Saint George, who was an early Christian martyr. Saint George is noted for slaying a dragon to save a princess. The princess was intended as a sacrifice to the dragon who was causing sickness in the inhabitants of the local town.

In legends, once a dragon has been killed, it’s body, blood and teeth could be used for various purposes. Sometimes the blood was beneficial to humans, conferring invincibility or other virtue, or it could be poisonous. The teeth could be sowed to raise armies, sometimes of skeletons.

Most fictional and mythical dragons are scaly reptiles, but one of the odd ones out is the furry creature called the “Luck Dragon” in the film “The NeverEnding Story”. This dragon had a head resembling that of a dog, front limbs and a tapering furry body which merged into a tail.

Most fictional dragons are noble creatures, but the “Swamp Dragons” created by Terry Pratchett in his discworld series of books which are altogether baser than the “Noble Dragons“. Swamp dragons are small creatures, are almost always ill (because of their diet) and are prone to explode if very ill or excited.

English: The Nine Dragon Wall in the Beihai Pa...
English: The Nine Dragon Wall in the Beihai Park, a large imperial garden in central Beijing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On one occasion one exploded after being enraged at the sight of itself in a mirror, imaging that it was in the presence of a rival. It does appear though that the fraught gastric processes may have a reason – a swamp dragon is described as flying on its stubby wings by emitting gasses created by its digestive processes.

Some dragons can apparently be tamed. In Anne McCaffrey’s Pern of books series, a partnership has developed between the flying dragons and humans to deal with the threat of “thread” which comes from a companion planet and is inimical to all life forms on Pern.

All the Weyrs of Pern
All the Weyrs of Pern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These dragons, which similar the standard dragon type from mythology, are large enough to be ridden by humans, and breath fire to kill the thread on being fed a particular type of rock. The dragons are genetically modified from the much smaller fire lizards and communicate with their riders by telepathy.

One unique ability of these dragons is to teleport from place to place carrying their riders with them. It also becomes apparent that they can also time travel while teleporting, Unsurprisingly, Terry Pratchett created a cameo parody or homage to the Pern books and their dragons in the first book of his discworld series, “The Colour of Magic”.

The Discworld as it appears in the SkyOne adap...
The Discworld as it appears in the SkyOne adaptation of The Colour of Magic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where there are dragons, the untamed variety, The more I think about them, the more I remember cases of dragons in literature and in films. A fairly recent example is the film “How to Train Your Dragon“. The dragons are at first treated as hostile, but the aspiring dragon killer, Hiccup, finds an injured dragon, it transpires that the dragons are friendly creatures and only attack humans because the humans are attempting to exterminate them.

The modern dragon is built along the same physical plan, whatever the media they are described in. Dragons are reptiles, usually lay eggs, mostly have four legs or limbs and a pair of wings. Mostly they breathe fire, and where this is touched on, it is usually implied that the fire is generated internally by ingesting and digesting rocks.

Saint George and the Dragon at Casa Amatller
Saint George and the Dragon at Casa Amatller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, early myths about dragon describe dragons as more akin to large serpents, even to the extent of having no limbs. Indeed, in early texts, the word used for dragons also means serpent.

Interestingly, although England’s patron saint is a dragon killer, the red dragon has come to symbolise Wales. “Y Ddraig Goch” is a red dragon and can be found on the Welsh national flag. He attains ascendency over an invading white dragon who symbolises the Saxons, after a long battle and an interval when both dragons were imprisoned in a hill in Snowdonia.

English: Welsh Dragon
English: Welsh Dragon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dragons are associated power. Having scales and claws, and being able to breath fire, are attributes that give them strong defensive and offensive capabilities. Their size gives them strength and they are a very great challenge to any heroes who take them on. Often they can only be defeated by trickery or luck, such as when Smaug was killed because he had a small unprotected area on his belly which allowed the hero to shoot fatally in that one spot.

Dragons are associated with magic, with wizards, witches, princes and princesses and supernatural items and events of all sorts. “Dungeons and Dragons” melds all these factors into a table top and role playing game which was popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

Dungeons & Dragons game in IV Getxo Comic Con.
Dungeons & Dragons game in IV Getxo Comic Con. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, dragons as such do not appear to be a large factor in the game, which revolves more around the characters who may be clerics, fighters or magic users. Dungeons and Dragons does have monsters and while some may be dragons, there are many other types of monsters, which may or may not be controlled by other players taking part in the game.

Finally, to bring this ramble through the topics dragons to a close, I will mention one other dragon that I recall from films, and that is the one which appeared in film and book “Doctor No” by Ian Fleming.

From http://www.33rdinfantrydivision.org/archi...
From http://www.33rdinfantrydivision.org/archivesphotos/may5_flamethrower.jpg source information from 33rdinfantrydivision.org : S/Sgt Bill Seklscki fires a flame thrower at a Japanese position near Manacag, Luzon, P.I. Jan 25 1945. Photo: National Archives. Webmaster note: 33rd did not land on Luzon until Feb 1945. Date of picture could be a mistake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the book and film James Bond is sent to Crab Key to investigate Doctor No. Rumours abound about the “dragon” which roams the island, deterring anyone from visiting. In the end the fire breathing dragon turns out to be a vehicle fitted with a flamethrower. This goes to show that while fictional and mythical dragons may be common, real dragons are scarcer than hen’s teeth.

Dr. No as seen in the James Bond Jr. animated ...
Dr. No as seen in the James Bond Jr. animated series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

Water, the cause of surfing.

English: Environmental Science student samplin...
English: Environmental Science student sampling water from a stream. Picture courtesy of Environmental Science program at Iowa State University. (www.ensci.iastate.edu) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across one of those pages on the Internet which state something like “At least a few molecules of the water in your body probably passed through the kidneys of Julius Caesar“. They generally use statistics to show that what they are saying is true.

Only those who believe in homeopathy should be disturbed by this. To anyone else, a molecule of water is a molecule of water, and the fact that it had once been contained in a stream of urine is irrelevant. In any case it is too late. 60% of our body is made up of water, so water from Caesar’s urine is already in us.

Julius Caesar, Summer garden, Saint-Petersburg
Julius Caesar, Summer garden, Saint-Petersburg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water is a fascinating chemical. It carries stuff around as it is the basis for blood and lymph and all the other fluids of our bodies. It carries nutrients up the stems of plants. It wears away mountains and builds rocks, it cools lava to form other rocks. It brings nutrients to our crops and washes them away. It even sinks ships.

“You are water
I’m water
we’re all water in different containers
that’s why it’s so easy to meet
someday we’ll evaporate together.”
― Yoko Ono

It’s difficult to think of any occurrence in our familiar world which is not mediated or affected by water in some way. Shortage of water to a society is a disaster, as food cannot be produced, leading to famine and deaths.

Much of the western U.S. is in "extreme d...
Much of the western U.S. is in “extreme drought” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water is thought by most people to be liquid at usual temperatures, though there are some places where it is to be found in solid form. Actually there is a great deal of it around in the gaseous phase, or vapour. We measure this airborne water in terms of the humidity or wetness of the air.

Water is extraordinarily pervasive and can be found in all the nooks and crannies in the materials that we have around us. It acts as a lubricate, and if the water is driven off, by heating or chemical means things become stiff and fragile. Even so, water cannot be completely removed from things – even a diamond probably has a few entrapped water molecules.

Water molecules attaching to each other by hyd...
Water molecules attaching to each other by hydrogen bonds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Water plays a role in rotting things down. A corpse kept in a very dry environment desiccates and turns leathery and fragile. I guess that this is because the organisms that rot a body away cannot function in a water free environment.

A body of liquid water fills things from the bottom up. Gravity pulls the water down to the lowest parts of a container and water continues to layer the container. The surface appears to be flat, but that is an illusion. At a small scale, if a tiny bit of the water happens to be higher than the rest of the water, gravity will pull it down, while the other water molecules resist by being in the way.

English: Dilmah - photo by me on today.
English: Dilmah – photo by me on today. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually as the water stills, the differences in level even out, and the water surface becomes as level as it can. However, at the molecular level, molecules of water, which are moving relatively fast on these scales, can pop out of the liquid and float away. Other molecules can also pop in to the liquid, so that on average the water is level.

Why doesn’t the surface appear blurry and ill defined then? Well we can’t see at the molecular scale, and also the water molecules form weak electrical bonds with each other. A water droplet is like a large crowd of people all milling about, holding hands much of the time. Those on the outside are not as tightly bound as those further in.


Embed from Getty Images

Imagine now that the crowd is surrounded by a storm of people who are moving faster, and are more spread out so they rarely join hands. One of these gaseous people will now and then bump into the crowd. They may knock loose one of the crowd who will shoot off and become one of the gaseous people, while gaseous person who hit him may now be travelling more slowly and link up with the crowd.

Even in the macro world a water surface is rarely really flat. The dynamic nature of the flatness is apparent when a container is jolted slightly and tiny waves form on the surface as compression waves disturb it. Wind and rain also cause visible disturbances in a lake or pond.

Surface waves
Surface waves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Flowing water often forms a smooth, if not level surface. A submerged rock in a river or a weir or fall in a river can form persistent ripples of flumes as the water flows over them. Kayakers know to aim their craft at a flume to safely descend a rapid or waterfall, although downstream of flumes the river often forms “haystacks” where turbulent water is forced into humps which can prove difficult to navigate.

A little stream may be described as turbulent as it makes its way over and around boulders and small drops, but interestingly it is not random. It is not chaotic. A close look will reveal that the bow waves of stones in the flow may flutter and throw off little whirling vortexes, but the bow wave and the pattern of vortexes persists. The little waterfall over a small stone ledge persists, even though the shape of the waterfall may ripple a little.

Ripple effect on water.
Ripple effect on water. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In large bodies of water, such as lakes and seas, winds form waves which can travel many thousands of kilometres across oceans and seas. Water waves don’t represent the movement of water over those distances – the only thing that moves is the energy in the wave. Water molecules in a wave move mainly up and down and only a little forwards and backwards.

Circular water current in a wave
Circular water current in a wave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However when a wave travels over a beach or shoal, the movement in the vertical direction is curtailed, and the energy is transformed into a forward motion – the wave breaks. Water is transported forward, with the water higher up moving faster than the water at the sea bed which may be water draining off the beach from the previous wave and the wave steepens until it collapses. Hence surfing!


Embed from Getty Images

 

Loneliness

English: The loneliness of Culloden Culloden i...
English: The loneliness of Culloden Culloden is one of the few areas that I leave feeling full of sadness. This lonely tree at the sight says it all. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robinson Crusoe was marooned for years on a tropical island. At first he succumbs to despair, but later he starts to make things easier for himself, at first rescuing goods from the shipwreck which is fortunately accessible at least for a while on a reef.

He has no one to talk to, until Friday, but he is kept busy just surviving. This business, wondering where the next meal was coming from, how to provide himself with shelter, all the minutiae of just living would have initially staved off all sense of loneliness.

Robinson crusoe rescues friday-1868
Robinson crusoe rescues friday-1868 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later on though, when his immediate needs were catered for, he must have reflected on the fact that he was totally alone on the island. (I read the book years ago, and I’m speculating – I can’t recall if he ever got into a philosophical mood or not). It would have been a driver to explore the island and finding no other people would have been a blow.

People in general need other people. In the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Ben Gunn is marooned on an island for years and become slightly unhinged by the loneliness. He spent a lot of the time on the island dreaming of one thing – cheese. However, he does not completely lose his senses and is able to take part in the events that follow.

The Black Spot. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth fo...
The Black Spot. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth for Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the human race, mainly, it seems for religious reasons. It is possible for such hermits to voluntarily return to the human race, something which is not possible for those who are marooned on an island, and this may make the separation more bearable.

The reason that hermits choose to isolate themselves from the human race is so that they can concentrate or religious or spiritual matters without being distracted by the minutiae of human life. Obviously they still need to eat and perform bodily functions, but those can be kept to a minimum and the hermits mind can be free to concentrate on one thing for much of their waking moments.

English: St.Martin in Memmingen. Choir stalls:...
English: St.Martin in Memmingen. Choir stalls: Portrait of a hermit Deutsch: St.Martin in Memmingen. Chorgestühl: Porträt eines Eremiten. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While human companionship can help to keep one sane, the constant interruptions to one’s train of thought can be distracting or irritating. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was writing the poem “Kubla Khan” when he was distracted by a person from Porlock and the poem was not completed as originally Coleridge envisaged.

Computer programmers often find that when they are concentrating on their task they will “enter the zone or the flow“. This is an almost trance-like state where the programmer is totally immersed in the task at hand, and the interruptions of normal life are not welcomed. A programmer in the zone may regard time spent on sleep, food and other necessities as unimportant, and this is why programmers sometimes subsist on coffee or energy drinks, and eat pizza and other fast foods that can be ordered in.

The immersive effects of the zone are not only felt in programming, I believe. Programming is in many ways an art, and I can imagine that the same is true of the other arts, such as painting and writing, as the example of Coleridge suggests, though he was using opium at the time he was writing Kubla Khan.

The feeling of being in the zone is, for the most part, intensely solo. While two or more programmers can work simultaneously of the same piece of code, this is much more difficult to achieve. I’ve seen programmers team up and program, but the feeling of being in the zone is much more fragile when more than one person is involved.

English: Programmer
English: Programmer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast, debugging a malfunctioning piece of code can be easier for two or more, as the different insights broaden and direct the flow into areas that neither would have thought of by themselves but in general the immersion is not so deep.

Quite often an isolated person, say a shipwrecked person, or an elderly or sick person who is not mobile and therefore spends a lot of time alone, will have an animal as a companion. The little old lady has one or more cats. The shipwrecked or marooned person may have a dog. A companion animal eases the separation from the human race.


Embed from Getty Images

A lonely person may pick an unusual animal as a companion. Some sources suggest that Michael Jackson made a pet of a rat and that his father killed it, but this story is muddled with the story behind his hit song “Ben”.

An isolated person may talk to the animal in default of being able to talk to other human, and may unwisely attribute human traits to the animal. If the person is alone with the animal for too long he or she may come to believe that the animal responds either verbally or by actions.

An albino pet rat eating a piece of bread.
An albino pet rat eating a piece of bread. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes an isolated person may imagine a fictitious companion, either totally invented or based on a real person. He or she may act out what he believes that the imaginary person would act out. In the film “Psycho” Norman Bates assumes and acts out the identity of his dead mother, who he killed 10 years earlier. Bates was isolated by his mental illness, and not by being physically isolated.

There are various causes of isolation – it may be unintentional, as in a shipwreck, or it may be intentional as when a sailor is marooned for mutiny, or a person may be isolated as a result of sickness, either mental or physical, or it may be a side-effect of old age. A person may be isolated by deafness or blindness, or physical inability to move.

Blind Girl
Blind Girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, some people seek isolation in the form of “peace and quiet”. If a person is highly stressed in their day-to-day life, they may find themselves looking forward to immersing themselves in a book, or taking a bath, or in any of hundreds of ways of isolating themselves from the general hubbub of human society. Possibly with a reasonable supply of alcohol to hand, merely to aid the relaxation of course.

English: Peace and quiet This part of the trac...
English: Peace and quiet This part of the track is very quiet apart from birdsong, the gateway on the left is about four feet wide, small enough for animals to pass through when the farmers and lead miners had horses and carts. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Caves, real and virtual

English: The Hall of the Mountain King, Ogof C...
English: The Hall of the Mountain King, Ogof Craig a Ffynnon, South Wales. Photo by Daniel Jackson, who has released the image under the GNU FDL. Subject in the photo is the submitter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was younger I did a bit of caving, spelunking, potholing, call it what you will. This mainly consisted of donning smelly boiler suits or wet suits and crawling, and in some cases, swimming through muddy, dusty, or wet caves, and later downing a few pints at the pub.

I and my friends visited caves in England and South Wales. Some cavers went further a field to places like Ireland, and places in Europe. I expect that most countries have caves of some sort, either limestone caves carved by streams and rivers, or sea caves blasted out of the rock by the waves, or even lava caves created by volcanoes.


Embed from Getty Images

We always wore hard hats and carried lamps, and sometimes we would carry ropes and coiled ladders for the bits that we could not otherwise free climb. (This is not meant to refer to the technical sport of climbing without aids – in caving, the climbing is secondary to the prime purpose of exploring the cave).

Lamps varied from the usually reliable “carbide” lamps, through various type of “miner’s” lamps to sophisticated battery powered lamps. All were worn mounted on the helmet.

Brass carbide lamp by Justrite
Brass carbide lamp by Justrite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The carbide lamps, usually reliable, burned acetylene created by dripping water onto calcium carbide. Starting them up was occasionally difficult and involved opening the water valve and lighting the gas thus generated. They were usually reliable (unless clogged with mud) and gave a bright light. However there were problems with the disposal of “spent” calcium carbide and many people didn’t like the idea of carrying a lighted flame on their head!

The “miner’s” lamps were usually second hand, sourced from coal mines. They could be recharged many times, but because they were second hand, they could be fickle and could discharge rapidly, leading to the user relying on his/her companions for light. They also contained lithium hydroxide, which is pretty powerful chemical and this could leak from the old rubber seals, possibly resulting in burns.

Caver with carbide lamp
Caver with carbide lamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newer lamps were electric, with batteries that could be recharged and I see that the newer ones can have battery packs that are mounted on the helmet, which could be useful. I suspect that one could take spare power packs and plug them in as needed. The older “miner’s” lamps had a cable that allowed the battery pack to be strapped around the waist.

Of course, all the lamps had a limited range. This did not matter too much as the view tended to be restricted to the back of the person in front for most of the time. When the group entered a larger cavern however, a caver’s view of it depended on the power of his/her headlamp.


Embed from Getty Images

In general a headlamp could not easily distinguish details in the distance in a cave, but a group of people in a cavern could illuminate it pretty well, or enough to spot the things that needed a closer look, like cave formations and stalactites and stalagmites, and the next bit of the intended route.

Nevertheless, the beauty of some of the formations in a cave is breathtaking. Huge stalactite flows, hanging curtains and sheets, rimmed pools of mirror like water in glorious colours can be seen. I’ve several times seen delicate helictites, which are rarely to be seen in show caves.


Embed from Getty Images

“Real” cavers scorn the show caves, but I’d guess that all have visited them at some time or other. For a “retired” caver they are a reminder of all those hours spent underground. The cave formations are pretty ordinary as compared to those found in the more natural caves, and the lighting and concrete paths, stairs and indeed the touristy commentaries by the guides seem laughable to those have experienced “real” caving.

When you visit a cave, at least those that have formed in limestone, they have been carved out of the rock by water (“phreatic”) and therefore have a distinct slope. There are exceptions but in most caves you go down into them and up out of them.

English: Scalloped limestone Limestone, now in...
English: Scalloped limestone Limestone, now in a stream bed but showing the typical scallop marks formed in a phreatic cave environment. (Ie indicating that it was once in a totally water filled cave) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you are exploring a cave, you generally don’t have a map, but in most cases you will be following someone who has already visited that part of the cave that you are exploring. You look forwards and down going in, pointing your headlamp at place, generally, below you. On the way out you look upwards, pointing your lamp in the direction of the exit.

You look into interesting nooks and crannies which points your light into them. Interestingly, when I have visited show caves I have looked into nooks and crannies and unconsciously expected them to light up. Of course they don’t as show caves don’t supply helmets with lights on them!

English: This is a picture taken looking out a...
English: This is a picture taken looking out at the sea lions from inside the main cavern of the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve played the game Minecraft quite a bit, and that has a feature which resembles caving. When you dig a mine in Minecraft you generally dig downwards. At first you might just hammer rocks to clear your way, but sooner or later you will hit a void in the ground. The trick here is not to fall into it.

You may hit the void or cave at any point – the bottom, the middle or the top. In any case you will initially see only darkness with maybe a a few blocks dimly visible in the gloom. To proceed further (and find all the desirable ores and minerals) you will need to get down to the bottom and root around.

A view of a set of steps in a Minecraft clone game
A view of a set of steps in a Minecraft clone game

This generally means that you carefully cut steps around the edges of the void until you reach the bottom. I generally leave torches attached to the walls of the excavation as I go, as a sort of “breadcrumb trail“. Eventually one reaches the bottom of the void and can go exploring.

At the bottom of a void, it is much like the bottom of a cave. A jumble of blocks and the occasional pitfall await. The only difference is that the blocks that form the virtual cave are all cubes and don’t move as you walk over them, whereas in a real cave there are all sorts of shapes, and they can move under your feet.

Trees in a glass building
Trees in a glass building

Interestingly coming upon a gaping void in Minecraft induces the same gripping tension as entering a large, unknown chamber in a real cave, at least to some extent.

Looking up from the depths at the bottom of the pothole
Looking up from the depths at the bottom of the pothole

Crime and Punishment

English: Donald Trump at a press conference an...
English: Donald Trump at a press conference announcing David Blaine’s latest feat in New York City at the Trump Tower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Donald Trump got into trouble the other for, if you read the media, suggesting that women who seek abortions should be punished if abortion was made illegal in the US. Much as I dislike the Trump and fear for the US and possibly the world if he should become president, he is right.

It’s the conditional that makes the difference. If abortion was to be made illegal, it would make it a crime, and all crimes have an associated punishment. I think that Trump made a political misstep, and that he should have stood firm on the matter, explaining the logic of his statement.

A bar chart depicting selected data from the 1...
A bar chart depicting selected data from the 1998 AGI meta-study on the reasons women stated for having an abortion. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He doesn’t even have to support the outlawing of abortion. He just has to explain the logic. Of course, if abortion were illegal, then the doctors and nurses who perform the operation would also be help responsible and punished. But if abortion were ruled illegal then the woman seeking the abortion would be breaking the law, and that implies punishment.

I personally believe that abortion, per se, should never be made illegal, although it should not be treated as just another birth control method, and should not be undertaken casually by the woman, or casually by the doctors and nurses. Clearly something living dies in the process.


Embed from Getty Images

The Trump got caught out by knee-jerk and politically based reactions all round. Logically, the stand makes sense – if a crime is committed, then the perpetrators should be punished. Trump wisely backed down on this position in the case of a hypothetical law, and may have missed his chance at the presidency because of this political gaffe on a hypothetical situation!

Crime and punishment go together like Adam and Eve, like right and left, like good and evil, like a fine rump steak and a good Cab Sav. Ahem. As a determinist, I feel that choice is illusory and that the apparent choices that we make in fact depend totally on past events that narrow down our options to just one.


Embed from Getty Images

Let’s take the case of a woman who “chooses” to have an abortion. She may have been informed that this is the safest option by medical specialists, she may be carrying a child who will not be viable when delivered because of genetic and other defect, or she may unable to care for a child for whatever reason. There is always a reason.

The woman balances all the information that comes to her and uses that information to “choose” to have an abortion. What really happens is that all the factors added together result in her trying to get an abortion.

English: Female demonstrator wearing a hat in ...
English: Female demonstrator wearing a hat in Madrid. It says “Abortion is my freedom, my choice.” She protested against Pope visit to Spain. Español: Chica manifestante con un sombrero en Madrid. Protesta contra la visita del papa a España. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You could of course argue that she could/should have decided to have the baby and adopt it out (assuming that the child is viable outside the womb, but that option is often not viable.

In general, punishment of a criminal is used to deter other criminals (and the criminal his/her self) from committing a similar crime in the future. Punishment should always give the criminal and similar people like him/her pause for thought. It is a factor that determines whether or not someone commits the crime in the future.

Crime and Punishment
Crime and Punishment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a criminal is thinking about committing a crime he/she will (consciously or unconsciously) consider the implications. If he/she chances it anyway, that will be because the pros outweigh the cons from their point of view at the time, not as a result of any free choice.

If someone is starving they may well steal a loaf of bread as one of the pros in the case may be continuing to live. This trumps any cons there may be if the person is desperate enough. Of course the person may be caught and fined or imprisoned or even transported to Australia, but at least he/she will be alive!

Tolpuddle Martyrs' Memorial Shelter, Tolpuddle...
Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Memorial Shelter, Tolpuddle Tolpuddle, Dorset, UK. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The justice system still works even if the concept of choice is removed. The person who commits a crime does so because they cannot do otherwise, and any punishment is merely the result of the actions that the person is destined to take. Such punishment is seen by others and becomes a factor that is considered when another person is contemplating a similar crime.

All the factors that go into the mental consideration of committing a crime result in either the crime being committed or not. They don’t result in a choice being made as the factors involved result in the person committing the crime or alternatively the factors may add up to the person not committing the crime.

English: 'Campus Watch' sign, Belfast One of d...
English: ‘Campus Watch’ sign, Belfast One of dozens erected around the university area of Belfast, this sign promotes the ‘Campus Watch’ scheme for students. Developed by the police in Belfast in partnership with the Northern Ireland Office, University of Ulster & Queen’s Students’ Union, it is similar to a neighbourhood watch scheme and promotes practical crime prevention for students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you get people to “make a choice” where they have no sufficiently compelling reason to “choose” one way or another, they find it very difficult to do so. For example if you put a person in a room with two unmarked buttons and told them to push a button when a buzzer went, I’d say that they would initially have great difficulty, but once they had pushed a button once, it would become easier, I suspect.

If asked why they pushed one button on the third trial, they might reply that they had pressed the other button twice so it was the button’s turn to be pressed. Consciously or unconsciously I’d suggest that they would be led to make the choices random.

English: 'Arcade Button' photo by Daniel, free...
English: ‘Arcade Button’ photo by Daniel, free to use (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the experimenter then pauses the test and mentions that the subject had favoured one button over the other and then continued, I’d guess that this would cause the subject to favour the unfavoured button more. I have no idea if such experiments have been done.

We are machines of meat, and machines don’t have any choice – they behave in a way that is built in, or lately, programmed in. Would you punish a machine that gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy you? You’d maybe add a new input into the machine to achieve a desired result.


Embed from Getty Images

In humans punishment is a new input. It could affect the result of the calculation that the brain makes and hence the human would come up with a result different to the result that would be observed without the punishment. Perhaps if or when machines become intelligent, it may be that we will need to introduce the concept of punishment to make them do what is required. Let’s hope not.


Embed from Getty Images

Shopping

A New World Department Store located at New Wo...
A New World Department Store located at New World Centre Shopping Mall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I do practically anything, I tend to muse about the origins of whatever it is I am doing. This is my way of looking at something in a different way. So today I’m going to think about shopping.

In the days before money, people would presumably have gone around trading for the things that they needed, which makes shopping in the way we understand it difficult and complicated. Role specialisations (butcher, baker, candlestick maker) would probably have arisen well before money was invented and shops as we know then would be unlikely to have existed.

English: Traditional Butcher Shop in Abbotsbury.
English: Traditional Butcher Shop in Abbotsbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trade would have been, for example, a barrel of apples for a side of pork, and complex networks of obligations would have arisen as Peter owes Paul a dozen eggs, while Paul owes Saul a side of pork, who owes Roger a hour or so labour to repair a pig byre, and Roger owes the blacksmith some wheat for his knives, and so on.

Once the human race invented money, this would all have become a lot easier. The value of the side of pork or the labour to repair the pig byre  could be assessed and indebtedness could be quantified more accurately. The advantages were obvious. Instead of passing around obligations, one could use money to pay for things.


Embed from Getty Images

Of course, the underlying principle is the same, the exchange of one thing of value for another thing of value, but the big advantage was the decoupling of the direct “thing for a thing”. An intermediate “thing of value” or money, enabled the keeping track of indebtedness much easier.

A smithy would be naturally located in a central position, as would the mill. Other suppliers would maybe not be so central – the proto-butcher might travel around the countryside killing and butchering animals, and the proto-baker probably worked from home and may have dealt with the passing trade and also delivered. Perhaps the proto-milkman might have distributed his spare milk and butter around the countryside too.

Bread rolls
Bread rolls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s likely that market places existed before money was invented, as places for people to trade their surpluses for other people’s surpluses, but the invention of money would probably have boosted the use of market places, and specialist traders would turn from prototypes to more specific traders.

And a retail/wholesale split may have happened pretty much as a result of the invention of money. The beef and pig farmer may have completely dropped any attempt to grow grain, or to keep a milk cow, if he could sell all his animals to the butcher and buy bread, grain, milk and cheese and butter from similar specialists.

English: Office candlestick in brass, made by ...
English: Office candlestick in brass, made by Skultuna mässingsbruk, Sweden. Svenska: Kontorsljusstake i mässing från Skultuna mässingsbruk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, the market place may have started out as place to trade produce, but it would have swiftly changed to a place where one could buy stuff. Pretty soon it would have occurred to the market traders that the hassle of setting up stalls and taking them down each day was a waste of time. They would use the new money to buy a house in or near the market, not to live in, but to store and even market their goods.

From the point of view of the customers, as well as the new class of merchants, this was a great move. Instead of travelling to the butcher, the baker, and indeed the candlestick maker, they only had to go to one place, the new expanded market. It would not be long before the houses around the market were modified to make buying and selling easy and for merchants to display their wares. Shops were invented.

English: Mindpro_Citinall_Giordano_Shop
English: Mindpro_Citinall_Giordano_Shop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More exotic products, such as spices from abroad and fabrics from other parts of the country would have started to make their way in to the market places as distant merchants could send large quantities of their goods and would know that a local trader could buy them, and sell them on to local people. Of course, a profit was to be had at each stage of the process.

Shops would naturally tend to arise near the market (which would still be used for livestock and work fairs), so shopping areas would have arisen, well placed in the town centres.

Oskargallerian, a shopping mall in Örnsköldsvi...
Oskargallerian, a shopping mall in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the largest centres of all, the cities, this concentration of shopping gave rise to problems for the shopkeepers, such as where to store one’s wares, and, inevitably, how to attract customers. Attractive shops help with the attraction, as does a large range of wares. Warehouses slightly out of town and large storeroom solve some of the other problems.

A larger range of wares means that some shops would have started to sell multiple types of wares. A clothier may sell clothes for all purposes, gender and ages, and may also sell raw materials for clothes making and the tools for making clothes. A hatter may also start to sell suits, maybe from the clothier, wholesale.

The Milliner (hat maker)
The Milliner (hat maker) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some time  in the 20th century the so called department stores became popular. These store sold wide ranges of things for as many household needs as possible. They were called department stores as they were divided up into departments – clothes here, crockery and other cooking equipment there, haberdashery here, gardening requisites there. Even jewelry would perhaps be found over there.

We are seeing the ultimate in bricks and mortar shopping these days, in the big shopping malls. These are usually based around a supermarket or a department store and contain many smaller speciality stores. Since they are truly “single places to shop” or “one stop shopping” they can be locates away from the town or city centres, to the detriment of any remaining city centre shops.

English: Bentalls Kingston department store wh...
English: Bentalls Kingston department store which is now incorporated into the Bentalls centre shopping mall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But in this virtual age, virtual shopping is becoming more important. You can buy almost anything that you can think of on line these days, even your daily groceries, and it is usually cheaper. However, there may be a limit to this, as many people like to touch and feel and pick and choose what they purchase, and clothes often need to be tried on. So while the on line trend in shopping is gathering pace, it is probable that bricks and mortar shops will survive, in some form, at least for a moderate amount of time.


Embed from Getty Images

Consciousness continues to amaze and elude


Embed from Getty Images

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”
1.

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.


Embed from Getty Images

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
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.


Embed from Getty Images

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)