The fool has said...

Avoiding "Sagan Syndrome."

Recall from my previous post how we have three wildly disparate time scales in play: millions, billions and trillions. Rounding to the nearest 20, we have:

- Time for intelligent life to fill a galaxy: super short 20 million years
- Time for intelligent life to evolve in a galaxy: moderate 20 billion years
- Time of universe to keep having stars: super long 20 trillion years

The first perspective shift is to step back in time, and realize the universe is very young. With 20 trillion years of star generation ahead, the universe has only covered 13.7 billion years or roughly .07% of its life span. Compare this to a person who expects to live 70 years, and you’d get .07% * 70 years = roughly 18 days. So in human terms the universe is a three week old baby. No wonder there’s not too much life out there yet.

[via daring fireball]

4 weeks ago -

WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic

The WEIRD mind also appears to be unique in terms of how it comes to understand and interact with the natural world. Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world. While studying children from the U.S., researchers have suggested a developmental timeline for what is called “folkbiological reasoning.” These studies posit that it is not until children are around 7 years old that they stop projecting human qualities onto animals and begin to understand that humans are one animal among many. Compared to Yucatec Maya communities in Mexico, however, Western urban children appear to be developmentally delayed in this regard. Children who grow up constantly interacting with the natural world are much less likely to anthropomorphize other living things into late childhood.

Given that people living in WEIRD societies don’t routinely encounter or interact with animals other than humans or pets, it’s not surprising that they end up with a rather cartoonish understanding of the natural world. “Indeed,” the report concluded, “studying the cognitive development of folkbiology in urban children would seem the equivalent of studying ‘normal’ physical growth in malnourished children.”

Original paper.

2 months ago -

The 'anternet'

Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, is an algorithm that manages data congestion on the Internet, and as such was integral in allowing the early web to scale up from a few dozen nodes to the billions in use today. Here’s how it works: As a source, A, transfers a file to a destination, B, the file is broken into numbered packets. When B receives each packet, it sends an acknowledgment, or an ack, to A, that the packet arrived.

This feedback loop allows TCP to run congestion avoidance: If acks return at a slower rate than the data was sent out, that indicates that there is little bandwidth available, and the source throttles data transmission down accordingly. If acks return quickly, the source boosts its transmission speed. The process determines how much bandwidth is available and throttles data transmission accordingly.

It turns out that harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) behave nearly the same way when searching for food. Gordon has found that the rate at which harvester ants — which forage for seeds as individuals — leave the nest to search for food corresponds to food availability.

A forager won’t return to the nest until it finds food. If seeds are plentiful, foragers return faster, and more ants leave the nest to forage. If, however, ants begin returning empty handed, the search is slowed, and perhaps called off.

Original paper.

[via kottke]

3 months ago -

Swimming, Running, Hunting, and Meditating: the Evolutionary Origin of Mystical States

Bosco Ho:

Now that we’ve established that persistence hunting may be the key driving adaptation for Homo Erectus, we can start exploring the cognitive demands of persistence hunting. Here, I believe, we’ll find the evolutionary origins of mystical states of mind. From my reading of the literature, there seems to be three major cognitive developments required for persistence hunting:

  1. 1. an intrinsic reward for the action of running
  2. 2. a heightened awareness of the overall environment
  3. 3. ability to mimic the psyche of the animal prey

1) In studies of societies that undertake persistence hunting, it was found that hunters during the hunt often fall into a quasi-mystical state of euphoria. Running is considered effortless and enjoyable in itself. Considering that recorded hunts can last up to 8 hours, there is a tremendous delayed gratification involved. Thus, it is necessary to evolve an intrinsic reward for the running itself, in order to motivate our persistence hunter to carry out this otherwise exhausting activity. As such, our ancestor’s brains evolved natural endorphins that are released with the physiological markers of long-distance running, such as regular intense breathing, and rhythmic motion.

2) For persistence hunting to work, the hunters must isolate and chase down a single animal. If you get mixed up and chase after different animals, you will not be able to exhaust it to collapse. Thus, one of the crucial abilities of a successful hunter is to track an animal over the landscape during an entire 8 hour run. The hunter has to develop the cognitive ability to maintain awareness of the prey in the vast expanse of the landscape. This is different to other mammalian predators, who only need to maintain direct visual contact as they run down their prey directly. The Hunting Ape must have developed an expansion of consciousness that defocuses from what is in front of you, diffuse over the vast expanse of the landscape in order to locate the prey anywhere on the horizon over the many hours of a chase.

3) Over a given chase, the hunters often lose sight of the animal, and no clear tracks are discernible. In such instances, the advantage goes to the hunter who could figure out which way the animal was likely to have gone. Our ancestors had to do it without tools such as GPS, satellite tracking, or knowledge of evolution. Instead, our ancestors found a short circuit to this information by evolving the ability to be “possessed” by the animal, or cognitively inhabiting the mind and thinking of the animal. Indeed, this is how modern day persistence hunters operate to predict the movement of the prey even when the trail was lost completely.

4 months ago -

The Many Layers of the Mystical Mind Cake

Bosco Ho:

In accounts of mystic states in formless traditions, an early precursor to a formless mystic experience is the experience of light. As the mind focuses on the origin of perceptions, defined perceptions are prevented from developing. This results in experiences of diffuse light, and music. This simplified perceptions are the results of blocking the development of perceptions received in our sense organs.

The formless mystical state occurs when all perceptions ceases. One is then conscious only of consciousness. Since there are no relative perceptions to keep track of time differences, time, for all and intents and purposes, stops. One steps out of the manifest universe. Meister Eckhart calls this the experience of the Godhead, the underlying fabric of existence. Buddhists call this Emptiness. From this vantage point, all perceptions, which belong to the manifest universe, is an illusion.

4 months ago -

On the Marionette Theatre

"Misconceptions like this are unavoidable," he said, "now that we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back."

One of my favorite essays, I was sure that I posted this years ago but apparently not. Either way, it’s worth reading again.

4 months ago -

Star in a bottle

The sun is, essentially, a four-hundred-quintillion-megawatt thermonuclear power plant, fueled by billions of years’ worth of hydrogen. Six hundred million tons of it is converted into energy every second. “If you go back, really far, you see the first caveman crawl out of his cave and be surprised every time the sun came up—that was the first time mankind encountered a fusion reactor,” Ned Sauthoff, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, who serves as ITER’s American project manager, told me. “It was ninety-three million miles away. But, of course, the caveman was impressed by the warmth and the light, and, being human, he said, ‘How can I have one of those?’ ”

5 months ago -

The Stupidity of Computers

With Wikipedia and its inadequate categories, one enters the realm of ontology. The word originally meant the philosophical study of the nature of being. In the context of information science, it has taken on a different meaning having to do with the modeling of reality. In essence, an ontology is an explicit, formal definition of a conceptual framework for any number of kinds of entities, as well as any number of relationships between them. In contrast to a taxonomy, which is merely a hierarchical ranking of entities using a single relation, an ontology can have any number of hierarchical and nonhierarchical relationships between its entities. The key words, however, are “explicit” and “formal.” An ontology is by definition a model of reality that is amenable to logical representation.

and

Because computers are incapable of creating meaningful ontological categories, and because the invention of new ontologies requires collective acceptance before they can be used, the most workable approach is to have the expected consumers of an ontology create and maintain it themselves. We could call this process the crowdsourcing of ontology.

and

We will increasingly see ourselves in terms of these ontologies and willingly try to conform to them. This will bring about a flattening of the self—a reversal of the expansion of the self that occurred over the last several hundred years. While in the 20th century people came to see themselves as empty existential vessels, without a commitment to any particular internal essence, they will now see themselves as contingently but definitively embodying types derived from the overriding ontologies. This is as close to a solution to the modernist problem of the self as we will get.

5 months ago -

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

In 1822, Franz von Gruithuisen thought he saw a giant city and evidence of agriculture on the moon, but astronomers using more powerful instruments refuted his claims. Gruithuisen also believed he saw evidence of life on Venus. Ashen light had been observed on Venus, and he postulated that it was caused by a great fire festival put on by the inhabitants to celebrate their new emperor. Later he revised his position, stating that the Venusians could be burning their rainforest to make more farmland.

and

Around 1900, the Guzman Prize was created; the first person to establish interplanetary communication would be awarded 100,000 francs under one stipulation: Mars was excluded because Madame Guzman thought communicating with Mars would be too easy to deserve a prize

5 months ago -

Xenopsychology

The elements of human nature:

Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organizations, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art. divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethnobotany, etiquette, faith healing. family feasting, firemaking, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hairstyles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic,. marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious rituals, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weaving, and weather control.

The elements of an insect-like intelligence:

Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determinism, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, colony organization, cleanliness training, communal nurseries, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, division of labor, drone control, education, eschatology, ethics, etiquette, euthanasia, firemaking, food taboos, gift-giving, government, greetings, grooming rituals, hospitality, hosing, hygiene, incest taboos, language, larval care, law, medicine, metamorphosis rites, mutual regurgitation, nursing castes, nuptial flights, nutrient eggs, population policy, queen obeisance, residence rules, sex determination, solder castes, sisterhoods, status differentiation, sterile workers, surgery, symbiont care, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weather control …

9 months ago -

History Must Be Curved

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

9 months ago -