Saturday, August 30, 2008

The human condition and the linear narrative of history

Civilisation is a chaotic, deterministic non-linear dynamical system. Despite this, human history clearly has the structure of a linear narrative, where in this context, 'linear' means 'unidirectional'. This suggests that human history is converging to some sort of attractor. It is worth reviewing this linear narrative because the nature of the attractor might be inferred from the nature of the narrative.

The human condition is a biological and cultural condition, and because both biology and culture have varied over the history of humanity, the human condition is fundamentally a variable state. Humans diverged from the ancestors of chimpanzees approximately 6 million years ago, and our DNA has been mutating at the rate of approximately 0.71% per million years ever since. Our ancestors lived in the trees, had not the capability to walk upright, nor the power of language, nor even the self-consciousness we now possess. Their human condition was fundamentally different to our own.

The durations over which linguistic capability and self-consciousness evolved are difficult to identify, but by the time at which Australopithecus existed, circa 3.2 million years ago, bipedal capability had developed. 2.5 million years ago, hominids began using stone tools, and this defines the beginning of the paleolithic age. Humans persisted as hunter-gatherers until the agricultural revolution 10 to 12 thousand years ago, when the introduction of crops and livestock, and the establishment of more permanent settlements defined the transition to the neolithic age. The stone age was then succeeded by the bronze age several thousand years ago, which in turn was succeeded by the iron age a thousand years or so BC, the exact time varying in different parts of the world. The industrial revolution occurred several hundred years ago, and the electronic/information revolution has occurred in the last century.

Two crucial facts emerge from this outline of human history:

1) There is a linear narrative in the cultural evolution of humanity. After the agricultural revolution, humanity did not, some time later, revert to being hunters and gatherers; after the stone age was succeeded by the bronze age, bronze age humanity did not revert to stone age humanity; after the bronze age was succeeded by the iron age, iron age humanity did not revert to bronze age humanity; after the industrial revolution, humanity did not revert to a pre-industrialised state.

2) The rate of cultural evolution has been accelerating over human history.

The electronic/information revolution has now brought with it the possibility that humanity will be able to bootstrap itself outside evolution by natural selection. Cybernetics will permit humanity to change its biological nature, and then to ultimately replace its biological substrate with an electronic substrate. In doing so, the human condition will not only change, but become subject to human control. This transition perhaps defines the end of the human narrative.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Scrotal temperature

"Heated seats may be frying sperm," warns New Scientist today. Whilst most scientists are wasting their time with mass spectrometers and fume cupboards, "Andreas Jung at the University of Giessen in Germany and his colleagues fitted temperature sensors to the scrotums of 30 healthy men, who then sat on a heated car seat for 90 minutes.

"An hour in, and scrotal temperature had already risen to an average of 37.3 °C, with a maximum temperature in one man of 39.7 °C."

Sadly, there is no mention of possible confounding factors or sources of bias, such as the presence of a pretty research assistant with cold fingers.

I think we're all pretty acclimatised to this sort of 'stupid science' by now, and have come to enjoy it. The article duly concludes with a dead-pan flourish: "The team did not test the effect of the heated seat on sperm quality or quantity." And what about the possible relationship between scrotal temperature and ejaculatory distance, pray? An opportunity, surely, for some further research.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The new phrenology

An irrefutable study of ice hockey players, which can safely be generalised to the whole population, reveals that the larger the width-to-height ratio of an individual’s face, the more aggressive they are. By way of explanation, it is suggested that

In general, men's faces tend to have a larger width-to-height ratio than women's. This physical characteristic has been linked to higher levels of testosterone, which in turn is linked to aggressive behaviour.

This, of course, suggests that Sophie-Ellis Bextor must have very high levels of testosterone and aggression. And Michael Schumacher, (a man who would be hard-pushed to ever get his face stuck between railings), must be on the verge of ovulating. Or maybe these are just the exceptions which prove the rule.

Chunky fingers

What is it with noisy typers?

Bang, bang, rat-a-tat bang, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat bang!

Chunky little idiot-driven fingers, in a frantic rush, hitting and banging the keys rather than thoughtfully caressing and stroking them. If you sit down randomly in any office or library, then the chances are that at least one person within audible range will be a noisy typer.

Bang, bang, rat-a-tat bang, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat bang!

No noisy typer has ever typed anything of subtlety or significance. Noisy typers merely want to finish what they're doing; they're not savouring the process. Troglodytes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dawkins and the teachers

Richard Dawkins's three-part Channel 4 series on The Genius of Charles Darwin concluded on Monday evening, and by far the most entertaining segment, I thought, was that in which Dawkins read out the profanity-laden vitriol hurled at him by theists over the internet ("I hope a church van runs you over on the way home and kills you," wrote one of the-meek-who-shall-inherit-the-Earth). More salutary, however, was the reaction Dawkins received when he met some of the school teachers who found it difficult to contradict the religious beliefs of their pupils in science lessons. The teachers tacitly endorsed the notion of the relativity of the truth, the idea that things are not absolutely true or false, it's just that some things are true to some people, and other, often contradictory things, are true to other people.

"Well, as a scientist, I can see that evolution is true," said one.

"No, not just as a scientist," interjected Dawkins, "it's just true, full-stop, isn't it?"

The teachers appeared stunned and bemused by this argument. You could almost see them thinking:

What is this person saying? This is not what we were told at Teacher-Training College! There is nothing about this in the policies of our Local Education Authority or school Parent-Teacher Association! These are not the beliefs we have mutually reinforced in each other as a professional community for many years. This has not been passed as a resolution at one of our Teacher Trade Union Conferences!

A delightful moment.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A polythene car?

Erstwhile Formula 1 design genius Gordon Murray, has been working on an environmentally-friendly road car, called the T25. It will be smaller, lighter, more powerful, cheaper, more fuel-efficient, and emit less carbon dioxide, than its current main competitor, the Smart ForTwo.
In the September issue of Motorsport Magazine, Murray reveals that the bodywork of the T25 will be made from a material never used before in the car industry, but hints that "it's been staring us in the face for years. Think water bottles."

Most water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), so I'd infer from this that the bodywork of the T25 will be made from some type of polyethylene. Now, PET is a type of polyester, and glass-reinforced plastic (aka 'glassfibre' or 'fibreglass'), a composite material consisting of glass fibres embedded in a polyester resin, has previously been used by the car industry for bodywork. Perhaps, then, the T25 will be made from non-reinforced polyethylene. Despite this, Murray predicts a four-star Euro NCAP rating for its crash-worthiness.

Best of all, Murray points out that "the T25 weighs just 500kg - believe me, it will be fun to drive."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The System

To begin with, you are without knowing that you are. There is no comprehension or incomprehension, there is simply experience and feeling.

Then, gradually, vapours of thought condense, a kernel of self-awareness crystallises, and a nascent layer of linguistic understanding accumulates. A new I has entered the world.

There is then a period of play and exploration. There is boisterous exuberance, an untrammelled joy at being and learning.

Then, at some stage, one discovers that one has been born into a system:

"Why do I have to go to school?"

"To learn things."

"Why do I have to learn things?"

"So you can get a job."

"Why do I have to get a job?"

"So you can make money."

"Why do I have to make money?"

"So you can buy things."

"Why don't we just give people money without making them work?"

"Then nobody would do the things people don't want to do, to make the things to buy."

So, grudgingly, we enter the system. After some years, however, a second existential transition creeps upon us. Not only is each I born into an external system, but each I is incarnated in its own animal system, and that animal system is programmed to reproduce. Previously dormant mental systems and hormones kick into action, and suddenly it is these body systems which are in control, the I simply a means to realise their imperatives.

A re-interpretation of the external system then takes place. It becomes a system to be played to our advantage to satisfy the physiological exigencies. Money will provide not only food, drink and shelter, but a means of attracting mates, and a means of rearing progeny. This second existential transition converts most into an acceptance of the system. Many are consumed by ambition from this point on. The world for most is then a world of careers, families, mortgages, bills, and pensions. A world of planning, rules and systems.

The joy and spontaneity of the young I is a barely acknowledged mote of memory.

And then a third existential transition creeps upon us. The internal system begins to decay and fail. The reproductive drive shrivels. The layers of linguistic understanding erode, and eventually even the kernel of self-awareness becomes brittle. Thought evaporates, and only feeling and experience remain. At the end, you are without knowing that you are. Beyond, there is nothing.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Strategic Trends 2007-2036

If you're looking for a reliable guide to the political, environmental, social, technological and social trends which will shape the world over the next 30 years, look no further than Strategic Trends, a rolling document produced by the MoD's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC).

The latest iteration of this document emphasises the importance of global warming to a much greater extent than its 2003 predecessor. It also includes a short section on Non-Western perspectives, and now acknowledges that the growth of moral relativism is an important trend:

"Secularism and materialism are likely to grow in significance in an increasingly competitive, inter-connected world, reflecting trends that are already well established in the more developed regions. Meanwhile, cultural mixing, the pace of change and a rapid confluence of modern ideas and traditional values are likely to increase the trend towards moral relativism and increasingly pragmatic values. These developments will trigger responses from complex, traditionally defined communities, as well as among significant minorities, whic will seek the sanctuary provided by more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularism and Marxism," (p12).

However, in one respect, I think that the authors of the current document have failed to make an obvious connection between a couple of their observations. Firstly, consider this accurate analysis of the geopolitical significance of the Arctic:

"The US Geological Survey estimates that around 25% of the remaining global oil and gas reserves are likely to be located in the Arctic. Although the harsh climate and environmental restrictions currently militate against oil exploration and production in this region, Arctic warming is likely to be double the global average and this will significantly improve prospects for future exploitation. Petrochemical companies, aggressively developing new extraction technologies, are likely to pursue oil production, undeterred by current environmental limitations, constraints and concerns. The annual reduction in Arctic ice coverage is likely to continue, leading to the prospect of a year-round Northern sea route across the Arctic Ocean between continents and may culminate in a summer ice-free Arctic in the period 2040 to 2080. These routes will become strategically significant, offering shorter and more direct trade links between North America, Europe and Asia," (p26).

Secondly, it is noted that:

"Russia's significance and influence in Europe is likely to increase, reflecting its extensive natural resources, particularly in oil and gas, but its ability to exert direct leverage or leadership will be limited by its internal tensions, not least its acute demographic crisis, threats to stability from radical Islam and severe regional instability on its southern periphery. The failure of Russia to diversify its economy from a single sector based on energy, as a 'Saudi Arabia of the North', may result in stunted economic development and huge inequalities resulting in political stasis and the potential for instability and disorder. This tendency will be perpetuated by ongoing difficulties in generating a self-sustaining middle class, significant levels of civic responsibility and a socio-economic model based on the rule of law. A failure to overcome these problems is likely, given historic experience, to result in an increasingly authoritarian, overtly nationalistic posture, characterized by a highly regulated, but irregular and criminalized economic sector and poor democratic credentials," (p45).

And yet, on p5, the map of conflict points around the world does not suggest that the Arctic will be a region of potential military conflict...

Monday, August 04, 2008

Black holes, Hoovers and the LHC

The Large Hadron Collider is due to be switched on at CERN this Friday, and I hope and trust that in the course of its operation it will generate a profusion of mini black holes. Mini black holes normally evaporate very quickly, and sadly pose no threat of destroying the world.

Mini black holes could, however, be put to hugely beneficial technological use. Black holes can, of course, be electrically charged, hence if one could create an electrically charged mini black hole, and if one could prevent the mini black hole from evaporating, then one could use electric fields to move and position the mini black holes.

How does one prevent them from evaporating? Well, the smaller a black hole, the greater the temperature of its event horizon, but a black hole will only evaporate if its temperature is greater than the temperature of its environment. Place a mini black hole in a heat bath at the same temperature, and it will be in thermodynamic equilibrium with the heat bath, and will not evaporate.

Now, a mini black hole like those that the LHC might produce, would have a temperature of about 1014 Kelvin, which is about 25 billion times hotter than the surface of the Sun. Hence, to move and manipulate mini black holes, and to build technological devices incorporating them, we would need to hold them with electromagnetic fields in a high-temperature heat bath. I leave this as an exercise to experimental physicists.

Once this problem has been solved, we will be able to construct a new generation of super-powerful Hoovers, each employing an array of mini black holes to suck up the dirt from the floors and carpets of our homes and workplaces. Obviously, as the black holes suck up the dirt, they will begin to grow in size, so they will need emptying occasionally. Rather as one removes the bag, once full, from a contemporary vacuum cleaner, one would simply remove the black hole module, lower the temperature of the heat bath slightly, and allow a quantity of mass-energy to evaporate in the form of a brisk gamma ray shower.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The weather outlook

Fuck me, it's wet!

Expect it to remain fucking wet for most of the week.

Dawkins and Tebbit on multiculturalism

Richard Dawkins makes a scathing attack on Islam and multiculturalism in today's Sunday Times:

"Islam is importing creationism into this country," he says. "Most devout Muslims are creationists – so when you go to schools, there are a large number of children of Islamic parents who trot out what they have been taught."

"Teachers are bending over backwards to 'respect' home prejudices that children have been brought up with," he says . "The government could do more, but it doesn’t want to because it is fanatical about multi-culturalism and the need to 'respect' the different 'traditions' from which these children come. The government – particularly under Tony Blair – thinks it is wonderful to have children brought up with their traditional religions. I call it brainwashing."

"It seems as though teachers are terribly frightened of being thought racist," says Dawkins. "It’s almost impossible to say anything against Islam in this country, because [if you do] you are accused of being racist or Islamophobic."

This last point is particularly important, because when Norman Tebbit pointed in the early 1990s to the failure of certain immigrant communities, and Muslims in particular, to integrate into British society, he was roundly slandered as a racist. Tebbit pointed out in 1991 that "some of [the immigrant communities] insist on sticking to their own culture, like the Muslims in Bradford and so forth, and they are extremely dangerous."

Whilst the introduction of creationism into British schools concerns Dawkins, it is the strain of fascist ideology in modern Islam which motivated the suicide bombings of July 7th 2005, and thereby poses the greatest threat to our liberal society. With some justification, Tebbit now feels that his warnings have been vindicated:

"I do think had my comments been acted on those attacks would have been less likely."

"I've been opposing the concept of a multicultural society for 10 years or more and that's because a multicultural society is an impossibility.

"A society is defined by its culture. It is not defined by its race, it is not a matter of skin colour or ethnicity, it is a matter of culture.

"If you have two cultures in one society then you have two societies. If you have two societies in the same place then you are going to have problems, like the kind we saw on July 7, sooner or later."

Dawkins and Tebbit united then, in their attitude to Islam and multiculturalism? It is interesting how external and internal threats are capable of making very strange bed-fellows...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Transistors and grains of rice

Some more numbers: Whilst there are 1011 stars in the Milky Way galaxy, 1014 cells in the human body, 1015 grains of rice produced annually worldwide, and 1017 ants on planet Earth, it seems that the annual world production of transistors exceeds all these figures, at 10 quintillion, 1019. Not only that, but the cost of producing each transistor is about one-hundreth of the cost of producing each grain of rice!