Tuesday 1 December 2076


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Monday 28 November 2016

The Ballast of Fear

A person's capacity for stress is a finite space.

A person will take whatever volume of stress they have and fill that capacity to the brim.

People are able to deal with extraordinary levels of distress. When we see people live through illness, through bereavement, through war, through famine, we celebrate their ability to compress and contain those horrors within the confines of that space reserved for stress.

People are capable of accommodating extremes of experience, of normalising and processing what previously must be unimaginable, with staggering dignity. At the other end of this spectrum, a life lead around comparatively minuscule problems will see those issues inflated and distorted to fill that very same space.

I see this behaviour in myself, and it is difficult to control, difficult to maintain the necessary perspective. Some examples close to my memory include such tedium as an insurance company renewing a policy without consent, a quarrel with a school about absence, a forced and yet pathetically minor change in lifestyle. All blown out to fill the stress place. At times where I have absolutely no discernible problems I can always rely on my own mortality to fill the ballast of fear.

Yet, relative to these I have dealt with larger issues, as do we all, and the space remains equally as full.

I guess the trick is to occupy the space with issues worthy of the drain.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Simulations of the Universe and of the Self

There has of late been excitement about the notion that our universe might be a simulation, and most lately in this article in the Guardian, by Olivia Solon.

Solon chooses for her springboard Elon Musk's recent assertion that “There’s a billion to one chance we’re living in base reality." This in turn, as Solon notes, is inspired by Nick Bostrom's 2003 essay "Are You Living in a Computer Civilisation?" Bostrom talks of "posthuman civilisation", a stage of development where humans have the capability of simulating the human mind. Through a beautifully wild piece of mathematics he argues that "at least one of the following propositions is true:

 (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage;
 (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
 (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation."

Elon Musk, it would appear, has ditched the first two possibilities in favour of the third.

Solon says the idea goes back to Descartes, but it actually goes a back a lot further. Two and a half millenia back, to when The Buddha told us that all of reality as we experience it is a construct.

Descartes questioned if were possible to provide empirical evidence that his own reality was not a dream, and found that he could not. To this extent we can see parallels with the simulation theories. However, in the famed cogito ergo sum - "I think therefore I am" - Descartes is quite at odds with the simulation theory, and with Buddhism. He places the I am, the tangible self, outside of the construct of his dream and firmly into Musk's "base reality". Bostrom's simulation theory is more in harmony with the Buddhist concept of annata, or the Doctrine of No-Soul. The illusion of the self as considered by the Buddhist philosophy is nothing more or less than the stimuli which is processed by the senses; as the stimuli ceases, so too the mirage it creates, the mirage of the individual.

That Musk chooses to forgo the first two of Bostrom's possibilities in favour of the third is, I would argue, a sign of the great optimism of a man who believed he could make spaceships and subsequently did so. It would seem that many pointers exist to the pessimistic first possibility; that we will not survive to the posthuman stage. These pointers are for another discussion, but include such exciting and cheery topics as the exhaustion of resources, climate change and thermonuclear wars.

Even if we were to survive to the posthuman stage, and the exponential explosion in simulations within simulations that Bostrom predicts does occur, the existence of each and every layer would be predicated on the survival of the technology in the base layer. Should a cataclysmic event occur at that base level all worlds would come tumbling down.

That Bostrom makes the assumption that a posthuman civilisation would choose to simulate themselves plays to one of the elemental constants of all human society - narcissism.

Also and finally, I am not sure what difference it makes, in any case.

Friday 23 September 2016

Somebody has just done something amazing

I have of late become hyper sensitised to "has just" as used in headlines.

It irritates me, of course, but that can't be the point.

There is something tragic there. A desperate cling to the fading moment. A strange word, just, imprecise and less relevant with every passing granule of time. In the context of a headline it is quite meaningless, stretching along the continuum between inaccuracy and the stone cold untruth.

These titles using the adverb often speak to the adjective form; justice is stated as served. There is a finality to the declaration, an inference of a granite conclusion, and very often an implication of moral superiority and advancement.

Present perfect progressive.

I began to cite specific examples but felt nauseous and was forced stop. Instead, and better, here is a link to a Google news search for "has just". Mind how you go.

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Cow Mechanics

I've been a vegetarian for nearly twenty years. I follow that diet which airlines refer as a Lacto-Ovo, in that I eat dairy and eggs. And honey.

Over the years I became well practised in defending my philosophy from attack by omnivores. When I began I was passionate, as time passed I became weary, and now I simply shrug and say, "It is was it is."

An experienced vegetarian develops the tools necessary to wallop improvised and insubstantial arguments skywards towards the moon. My late granny, who slipped by only earlier this year, was the only person who really gave me pause for thought. She was a Devon girl, grown on farms, as were countless generations before her. She told me of the mechanics of dairy farming, of the necessity of calving the cows to keep the milk running and of the fate of half of those calves, the male half.

Milk and cheese and yoghurt is subsidised by the trade in flesh and skin of these young bulls.

This is problematic.

In that knowledge, I still drink milk and eat cheese and yoghurt. I would consider not doing so from a dietary point of view, despite cheese being the greatest foodstuff on the planet. I could refrain, I have willpower. The problem comes in stepping out of the house. Britain is very good at providing a lacto-ovo vegetarian option, but to turn vegan is to say, hey, I can't eat with you in that cafe, pub, restaurant, and there is nothing for me in the chilled section of the petrol station. I can't step over that line.

Is there a solution?

Well, perhaps. But many of you won't like it.

What is a cow? Before humans penned them, did they exist?

As dogs were artificially bred from the wolves, so cows were domesticated from their wild bovine ancestors. Over the centuries they have been shaped into the docile oblongs of meat on legs that today we hear moo plaintively over hedgerows and wire.

This is genetic modification by selection.

Could we expand on our modification and genetically design a bred that will give birth to a disproportionate amount of cows to bulls? Nine cows to every lucky bull that will spend its rarefied life fathering nine cows to every lucky bull?

It would solve my ethical problems, at least.

Monday 13 June 2016

Faith and football

I was close to loosing my grip as England played Russia at the weekend.

It's been like this for thirty years, since Mexico 1986.

I'm so tired.

But I can't let go.

Because, what does that mean? If one lets go to the throbbing truth that it means absolutely nothing, these young men hurtling after a bag of air, then let slip the dominoes of existential collapse. Popular music, means nothing. Dramatic arts, mean nothing. All bloody art, nothing. The laws of physics?  If you like, and the sun will explode and end us all. Love, hate, descendants, antecedents, lost pets, fifty hours of watching Breaking Bad.

I don't know.

We play Wales on Thursday.

Tuesday 31 May 2016

Divisive Devices

You'll have noticed, I imagine, that many people spend a great deal of time staring at their telephones.

Last week I had the dubious fortune of eating lunch at a branch of IKEA (I believe it is on-brand and mandatory to shout the name). As I watched the crowds with their Swedish horse-balls and chips, I noticed that almost all of them were staring at their telephones whilst eating.

It reminded me of a passage from Walpola Sri Rahula's book What the Buddha Taught:

"Sometimes you see a man in a restaurant reading whilst eating. He gives you the impression of being a very busy man, with no time even for eating. You wonder whether he eats or reads. One may say he does both. In fact, he does neither, he enjoys neither. He is strained, and disturbed in mind, and he does not enjoy what he does at the moment, does not live his life in the present moment, but unconsciously and foolishly tries to escape from life."

That was written sixty years ago, and written from a philosophy formalised over two and a half millennia before. It foretells an epidemic.

Detail from The Vanity of Small Differences
by Grayson Perry
Grayson Perry's exhibition The Vanity of Small Differences toured through Bath in recent months. One of the pieces tells a cautionary story of this epidemic, a child grasping towards his mother's smartphone. After we toured around the tapestries in the Victoria Art Gallery my wife and I took our daughters upstairs, where they could make some art for themselves. There the scene echoed around the room, with children wrestling against bright electronics for their parent's attention.

The kids will, of course, survive. These are not the worst trials a childhood has been forced to negotiate. The tragedy lies in the loss of our awareness.

Rahula's man in the restaurant read a book to try and escape from his life. Unlike a book, our devices are not passive, they are in some sense aggressive. Algorithms feed us what they deduce we wish to consume. They do not hide this intent; they even use the word feed. The artificial intelligences learn our desires and use them against us, to drag us from our meals, our children, our lives. Our consciousness is held in thrall, blanched by an endless and contracting loop of what we already believe. We engage daily, hourly, by the minute, in a complicit narrowing of our minds, inviting the machine to entwine and constrict our synapses.

We are divided from each other by our little machines, but more dangerous still, we allow them to divide ourselves. We want them to do it. We can no longer consider ourselves whole.