Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Music states

For those interested, what I'm listening to this summer. Or at least the bands whose labels have OFFICIAL YouTube pages with sharing and embedding enabled.

I shouldn't like Metric's Synthetica. It doesn't fit within my normal spectrum of taste states. Also, not a big fan of synth-inflected pop, but...

But it's brilliantly constructed with amazing lyrics and energy appropriate to summer.

Pairs-based Lebanese singer and songwriter Yasmine Hamdan. I've been a listener since seeing her in Only Lovers Left Alive. Particularly for sounds slow and intense.

Jolie Holland's "Dark Days" from this year's Wine Dark Sea. Yes, it is in fact darkly dark. But also fun, riding as it does on Holland's throaty vocals, building power, and warm, complex sound. So there.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Audio hallucinations and loving machines

Two articles got me thinking about human nature and its future this week.

Stanford researcher: Hallucinatory 'voices' shaped by local culture:

'via Blog this'

One is a Stanford News piece covering a recent study's findings about the influence of culture on the expression of schizophrenia. Namely an anthropologist's take on how the hallucinatory voices are perceived by schizophrenics in differing societal contexts. Professor Tanya Luhrmann's interpretation of her data is that in individualist cultures the voices are more likely to be experienced as hostile or as deficits. Those with the illness in more collectivist societies have a better chance of interpreting the voices as friendly and as aspect of the world.

First, the normal disclaimer. As a rule of thumb, it's best to wait for three studies done by three teams at separate facilities to come to similar conclusions before declaring any set of findings "fact". Second, the sample populations in this study appear to have been very small. Also, the discussed definition for what constitutes individualist and collectivists societies is...broad. Calling western societies individualist is throwing a wide blanket over a group of cultures strung out rather than clustered on that spectrum.

To me, this study looks like an interesting start point. An inroad on the contextual presentations of schizophrenia that's deserving of a lot more follow up.

That said, I've always wondered if it was easier to be schizophrenic, or at least more accepted, when the voices were often seen as aural manifestations of angels, demons, or saints. I've also suspected that it'd be even easier to deal with the audio hallucinations in animist cultures, where the dominant paradigms frequently imbue everything with the potential for voice and consciousness.

It's also amazing how period and technology specific the voices can be. While living in Scandinavia ten years ago, I spent quite a bit of time hanging around doctors in general and psychiatrists specifically. One of their more interesting observations was the hallucinatory universality of spy satellites, in particular CIA spy satellites, used to steal or read thoughts on both sides of the Atlantic.

Rather than individualist versus collective, I wonder if it's paradigm that's the stronger influence. An individual's broad worldview in the sense of technology base, religion type, general acceptance of the existence of clinical disorders of the mind, and more in that vein.

Assuming that the differences hold up with larger sample populations.

I also wonder if people might choose to cultivate useful forms of schizophrenia in the future, with implants and gene augmentation. To give literal voices to the various analytic functions of the brain.

How? One of the more intriguing hypotheses I've come across about the disease is that an individual's inner narrative voice is a composite of several analytical and simulation functions. Schizophrenia, in this model, is in part a timing error in which the inputs that make up the singular voice of the mind fall out of sync with one another. A lack of cohesion that we might eventually take deliberate advantage of to construct a new style of processing our world awareness with parallel internal narratives.

That said, it's been several years since I've encountered the voice timing hypothesis in a medical journal. I have no idea how or if it's held up in light of recent discoveries about networks in the brain, and our ongoing refinement of neuroanatomical functions.

Failing the Third Machine Age: When Robots Come for Grandma — The Message — Medium:

'via Blog this'

Robots as emotional caregivers and sources of solace?

That's actually something I've given a fair amount of thought to. Though for reasons other than those articulated by assistant University of North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci.

Where Tufekci is understandably concerned about the destruction of much needed medical and caregiver jobs and all the violent turmoil associated with past technological revolutions, I'm more worried on this issue that humans will quit or greatly reduce their socializing with one another.

Especially if the robots or software agents are kinder than people. Nicer and either capable of genuine emotion or a facsimile convincing enough for people to buy into.

Why? Because I've seen it happen with monkeys. Not monkeys and robots, but monkeys and humans.

Usually with juvenile and young adult rhesus macaques who became accustomed to socializing with people. Hanging out with the lab techs was all about the constant grooming opportunities, treats, and all those encouraging friendly noises (words) that humans tend to vocalize around monkeys they like. Life in the troop, on the other hand, was endless macaque infighting and politics. The sharp-edged conflicts over status, jockeying for position, and slapping down or humiliating those underneath to keep them in their place in the rhesus hierarchy.

That's not to say life in all troops was brutish. Leadership styles of the elites and combativeness within each culture varied. Still, it never looked fun at the bottom, and in some groups not even tolerable in the middle or at the top.

Monkeys acclimatized to human-levels of friendly interactions and lack of common social violence tended to do poorly when introduced back into a communal housing unit.

Not that human society is anything close to perfect. There are those who would almost certainly be healthier and more emotionally stable with loving machines rather than their squabbling fellow human primates. Still, I'd rather see technology help make us better social animals rather than seclude us from one another. The future of human augmentation, in my eyes, is as much about improved emotions as enhanced reasoning or augmented talents.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beautiful Space Photos: Summer edition

Some of these were featured by NASA on Twitter earlier this year to celebrate the Academy Award nominations garnered by Gravity. Which, even with its shortcomings and lack of orbital mechanics realism, was an amazing film. Also, the first movie that truly benefited from being presented in 3D. Or at least it did for me. The technology gave the cinematography an edge and..well...depth that very much contributed to the sense of transport and wonder.

Also: Apollo photos to celebrate the 45th anniversary of humanity's first landing on another world.

Public domain, courtesy of NASA unless otherwise noted. 

For some lovely and colorful copyrighted images, check out the astrophotography website of Hungarian astronomer, Ivan Eder. Eder has produced some amazing shots of our solar system's various celestial bodies, as well as photos of the deep sky including nebula and galaxies. Very much worth your time.

Friday, July 18, 2014

My kind of headspace

I love games with 3D environments. Some of this is from having read Ender's Game as a child, and the sheer awesomeness of the main character's solution to how one orients oneself when there is no up and down. How does a person move and coordinate with others in a place where there aren't any of the directions that life has accustomed us to?

The answer, of course, is to create your own frame of reference. One that maps the old sense of direction onto a new environment in a way that opens up new possibilities.

I also love such games because they push us players to transcend the 2D environment that shaped us. Sure they're uncomfortable at first, but any sort of transcendence, even a little one barely worthy of the name, requires doing strange and sometimes disorienting things. It's a part of pushing past the narrow points of view we all start out with in life. Views like the limited framework terrestrial evolution has gifted us with, if we want to move onward and outward into the universe at large.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Classic 90s biological immortality

Absolute Sandman, Vol 2
I've been working my way through Sandman in its Absolute collection.

Niel Gaiman's story of Dream of the Endless remains the seminal series of the 1990s for me. Just mind-blowing in how much storytelling terrain it covers. And in how it subsumes the act of telling tales of all types into the overall meta story.

I also love this series because it refuses to give into the angst that suffuses much of modern literature. It takes the highs along with the lows and mundanes of existence and mixes them into something that approximates life's uneven good and bad.

Ah, the 90s. You were a season of balance. As always, such dynamic stability proved fleeting.

If you're unable to make it past the horror stories in the series' early arcs, you owe it to yourself to jump ahead to some of the more fantastical volumes. The collections Fables and Reflections and Season of Mist hold a strong appeal for a general audience.

Now that I've Got That Out of the Way

Revisiting Sandman has got me thinking more about biological immortality and how one would go about living with it. Not so much dwelling on the series's Endless, who are made for eternity. Rather the mortal Hob Gadling who denounces death as a failure of the imagination. And who ends up not dying as century after century of English and then British history plays out.

Hob goes so far as refuses the gift of death when historical shift and a subsequent century of upheaval shatter the good life he's built. When he's forced to start over in every way.

One of the most refreshing things about the thirteenth issue of Sandman, is that it doesn't devolve into a horror story. Immortality in literature and movies almost never fails to throw up its hands and moan out some variation of "we we're fools to play God." Rather, long life in Sandman's "Men of Good Fortune" is in part something made sustainable by the web of connections we make with other human beings. And in large part a mater of choosing an upbeat perspective.

That Spiffy Forebrain

The most recently evolved area of our gray matter, riding just behind our eyes is combinatorial and modulary. It fabricates perspectives by combining memory, concepts, and sensory information. Then it gives those perspectives the weight of emotion. Ultimately one of those freighted points of view comes to dominate our consciousness.

In doing, so it modulates our initial reaction to the situation. Both on a conscious level and the physical hardware level of inhibiting or modulating signals feeding back into the rest of the limbic system.

Creating new perspectives beyond the immediate animal response to stimuli is one of the most quintessentially human acts.

By way of example: On occasion we might feel like the worst person to have walked the Earth when the realization sets in that we've acted the part of an ass. That ugly sinking moment of: "Shit! Why did I say that to her. Why did I treat him that way?"

A broader point of view, however, can bring much needed moderation. Yeah, the rash word or careless act was bad, but not necessarily worst-human-ever material in a world that's had its share of Hilters, Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots.

The choice of perspective is infinitely fascinating. Both neurologically and philosophically. Sometimes the decisions on how to see events takes place with little or no thought. At other times we bring the full power of our faculties to bear.

Some people are good at it. They're fluid thinkers who weigh many perspectives, then embrace one, live it, and if need be discard and chose again in response to new data. Others only come to a new way of seeing things after battering themselves bloody on the wall of what is.

Fluid or Crystal?

So what would living for multiple present-day human lifespans do to our ability to generate perspectives?

On the worst case side of the scenario-spectrum is an obvious ossification. A hardening of views and attitudes. An inability to adapt that's destructive to both the self and others. Societies of the long-lived in which the innovations, reforms, and fresh points of view associated with youth are perpetually stifled.

That's certainly something to be considered. Especially as I like to go on in this blog about how the young generation that fought in World War II here in the US was also the one that affected many necessary and long-fought reforms. Changes that vastly improved race relations and addressed the constant economic turmoil that had blighted the industrial economy for several preceding decades.

Then again, looking at all the negative changes made to the economy and politics here in the US wrought by their children, the Baby Boomers, there's also something to be said for keeping youth-driven changes reined in.*

"Woe to greybeards when the young men lead the war parties," and all that. 

The best case scenario for long-life and perspective is that we'd grow more fluid in the generation and choosing of viewpoints. More skilled at coming up with and deciding between moment-to-moment short-term perspectives.

When it comes to long-duration worldviews -- the durable overlay of emotions mapped onto our knowledge of the world -- I like to think there could be increased stability. Osculations of the feelings embedded in our beliefs over the course of the first few centuries. Then a leveling out into something with greater dynamic stability in the long run.

Major perturbations to a long-lived person's perspective would come from significant scientific discoveries, instances of historic shift, or theological revelation or some variant of the mystic's experience. Additional slow-burn change might come from episodic adaptations to a world that shifts a little each decade, and a lot every century

While the attainment of a sage-like serenity with a capacity to enjoy the worlds of sensations and ideas might be boring to observers, it could be a good deal more pleasant and productive than our current system of recurrent upheavals. Besides, our present preferences for drama as well as what we find interesting could end up looking grossly childish and irresponsible to future generations of biological immortals.

There is some precedent for the hope that longer-lives can lead to an improved dynamic stability of the mind. Most of you reading this blog live in societies where violent crime has decreased markedly over the past two hundred years. And in which individuals live on average for far longer than their predecessors. Countries with accelerating rates of technological innovation and waves of adaptation to social changes that would have been unthinkable to the nearly all the generations of humanity who have gone before us.

A combination of circumstances that provides much to thinks about.

*Yeah, this statement is a little unfair. While I do believe the Boomers have inflicted significant damage to the economy, political moderation, and the institution of family, here in the US, most of that harm wasn't done in their youth. The bulk was carried out in recent decades, though it's stemmed primarily from an immensely destructive inability to let go of youthful idealism. An unwillingness take up the practical wisdom of pragmatism since their parents generation began to pass away in large numbers during the 1990s. A potent combination of greed and inflexible ideology. 

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Blogcation: Seattle

Been doing a lot of non-blog writing and editing recently. I'm getting ready to float some more material with publishers and pitch to more agents. I had a novel under consideration with one of the big five genre publishers here in the US for the past two years, and got a rejection on it a couple of weeks back. After many ups and downs. So I'm feeling more than a little motivated at the moment. Get thumped, stand back up, all that good stuff.

I've also been doing some traveling here in the Pacific Northwest. That's also kept me away from the keyboard, though in a healthy way.