Sunday, April 06, 2014

digital placebos

Here I sit, surrounded by my electronic toys.

The iPad playing the music, the phone alerting me to incoming texts and calls, the laptop my outlet to the world, the television showing the umpteenth rerun of a vaguely familiar movie - long forgotten but still somehow strangely comforting.

Modern life must be really tough considering how many digital placebos it takes to make us feel better about ourselves.

Much of the need for the placebos is created by the technology itself of course.

The tech toys don't just bring in music and release. They also bring in emails, work, bad news, and constantly bombard us with updates that make us feel that somehow we're not 'doing it all'.

It's a vicious circle. Ever faster connections tying us closer to the world make ever more placebos necessary. We cannot avoid it, but we can understand it. And understanding is the first step to dealing with it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Complexity - 1

Living things are perhaps, at root, energy conversion machines.

Think about if you were creating a universe and you had two options: one to design everything from day one, the other to put in places machines to do the work for you. Looking at ourselves as humans today, we know that the second idea would appeal to us. Making and using tools and machines comes naturally to us. Tools which amplify our abilities and extend the range of the possible. 

But we know that machines consume some form of energy. So if we had a lot of things to build we would come up with two things: First the machines, and second a whole lot of energy to run them. And we'd set things up in a way that the machines can convert this energy into useful work and in the process transform the space in which they exist.

In a way, this is entirely what happens. All living things basically absorb energy and make an impact on their surroundings by transforming this energy into work. Plants do it, animals do it, and humans do it perhaps most visibly. But the concept remains the same.

Of course if you were thinking very long term, you would do one more thing in addition to having energy and machines. You'd think about learning. As the machines create one set of outputs, the next task would be more complex. They would start with the easy ones and make their way upwards towards the more difficult ones. When we look around this is exactly what we see, we build more and more complex things, transform energy in more and more useful ways as we learn more. So in addition to having lots of energy to work with, the machines should have the ability to learn from their own work and adapt. 

This is how complexity works. What seems remarkably complex today often arises from simpler rules working together and interacting over increasing scales of time and space. Complexity thus emerges as a consequence. What seems complex today will seem trivial in a hundred years - just like what appeared complex a thousand years ago appears to be trivial today.

Three elements are therefore important: Lots of energy, machines to transform this energy into work, and a feedback loop which enables these machines to learn and adapt. Leave these three elements alone and results would likely be spectacular.

So much is possible. So many things to do, to see, to be.

But the fear of the unknown conspires with the drug of the familiar to keep us where we are.

Where does fear come from? Fear of change, fear of missing out, it's really fear of regret. We fear what 'could have been'.

Jump, they say, and a net will appear. And for a moment we feel flushed and capable and bold...and then we say...will it ? What if it doesn't ?

Well, what if it doesn't ? We fail ? How do we know the net holding us up today will stay forever. We don't of course, but it feels more real.

It's just a trick, an illusion. A net is a net. Whether we are on one today or jumping towards a new one, all nets give away sometimes. And rationally we have no way of predicting which one holds up better in the long run. But because the one we are on feels familiar we cling to it.

Life is complicated. One just has to accept this and move on. 

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A boringly predictable universe

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the universe is how boringly predictable it is.

We keep making movies and writing novels about mysterious forces, super villains with super powers, aliens from distant planets; but in real life no little green martians ever appear. Everything turns out to be predictable, organised, and seems to follow some basic principles which, though hard to find, once grasped are easy to apply.

I'm not suggesting that there is nothing left to discover but that the discoveries turn out to be much less melodramatic than we might secretly be hoping for. There is always an explanation of how new discoveries fit in with existing knowledge, and there is always an element of order in how new phenomena are explained.

Even human behaviour, which appears very erratic on day to day basis is not as random as it seems. Laws of economics, insights of psychology, and statistics can tell us a lot about how people - in aggregate - will react to certain situations.

Now that we have a rover on Mars, pictures from the martian landscape are pretty routine. Once you get over the novelty factor, they are rather unremarkable - rock and dust and sunrises and night falls - just as you would expect.

So while the frontiers of science continue to expand, if we are looking for something truly unexpected we still need to look to fiction.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

Planet Hopping

Curiosity is inherent to human nature. We love exploring: mountains, oceans, and of course planets. We just seem to have this urge to keep going farther and farther.

Where does this come from ? this desire to wander farther ?

Perhaps it has its roots in the times when moving from place to place was the only way to keep oneself fed. Before roads, before farming, before we learned to control our environment, humans had to keep moving. As the food became consumed and scarce in one place there was no choice but to go to the next pasture, the next river, the next hunting ground.

Perhaps the urge to wander comes form this centuries old necessity. Maybe we still fear subconsciously that we will run out: of space, of food, of energy. So we keep moving on, looking for new places to survive - just in case.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When the world runs out of energy.....

When the world runs out of energy, only the lazy will survive.

So it turns out sloths are not lazy, they're just ahead of the curve; already adapted to a post oil world!


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Back to the future

It's amazing how pathetically short a lifetime is, and yet how much of it is spent waiting to be lived. 

Events that happened 30 years ago come back to me like it was yesterday. Things that I decided to do 20, 30 years ago are still somewhere on my planning horizon. I still kid myself that I will get around to them. Danish preparing for his A levels takes me back to 1984 when I was in the same grade. Wasn't that long ago really. 

And I wonder what it would be like 30 years from now. 

2044. I will be 75, if I'm still around. 

And I think to myself, that's it ? That's what all the planning and worrying is for ? Another 30 years ? If the last 30 are any indication they will go by pretty quickly. 

All my deeds, all my success and failures, all the regrets and worries will be meaningless by then. It will simply be too late to worry about them, or at least to do anything about them.

Looking back 30 years, I had ridiculously little idea about what lay in store. Do I have any better ideas about what lies ahead? I'd like to think so, but I know I'm more likely to be wrong than to be right. I'm expecting to be surprised. I expect things to change, for this much I've learned at least. But I'm less worried about it now. For things usually work out. 

Some things don't change though, things we are passionate about, affairs of the heart, tend to stay.  Music from those days, the kinds of books I liked reading, things I liked to do back then I still tend to like: solving puzzles and reading, and writing. So this thread of continuity will likely survive another 30 years. If it does, it would be a wonderful thing. I'd like to still be reading with delight, coding, and writing in 30 years. And who knows, I might even get around to doing some of the things I've been meaning to do.