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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Recipe for a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” Future

I just saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on cable TV. It's the latest in the series of movies inspired by J. R. R. Tolkien's epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien “franchise” is apparently alive and well, with the expected elements such as dwarfish hobbits, giants, dragons, wizards, and a magic ring.

If I recall correctly, the “Lord of the Rings” stories are supposed to be set in a distant human past, long before history began. But is there any way that something like the Tolkien fictional world might actually be...our future? What kind of strange future events might cause the world to end up in some state rather like the “Middle Earth” depicted in the “Lord of the Rings” series?

I can imagine some ways that might come to pass. One contributing factor could be some kind of genetic bifurcation or fission of the human species. According to a Huffington Post article, “Researchers found that the shorter a person was, the more likely they were to have a long life.” Other studies show that tall people earn more money. So it might be that one day, gene splicers offer parents a choice: you can have regular children; you can have short children that live longer; or you can have tall children that earn more money. A few decades after parents have such a choice, we may see the human race splitting up into different sub-species. There may be a sub-species of humans who are very small, and another sub-species of humans that are very tall. It could then end up being a little like “The Lord of the Rings,” with its division of dwarfish hobbits, regular humans, and giants. Or a nuclear war might produce mutations that cause the human race to split up into different sub-species. Need some cute little pointed ears? Some mutations will get you that.


But in order to have anything like a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” future, you also need to get rid of most of the trappings of modern civilization. It's okay to still have cute little Hobbit houses, and some huge imposing stone buildings, but we would have to lose most of the superhighways, the malls, and the burger joints. But there's are several ways that might happen. One possibility is global energy collapse. If we ever pretty much run out of oil (as some Peak Oil theorists suggest), we might see a social breakdown that might cause our car-based culture to collapse in a tailspin. Another possibility is some kind of electromagnetic pulse that wipes out the electrical grid. That could come from a big solar flare, or from an enemy detonating a nuclear bomb way up in the atmosphere. Or there might be a nuclear war that wipes out most of humanity.

Of course, after such a collapse it would probably be a good long time before things got really Tolkienesque, and people went back to riding on horses, using swords, and living in quaint little villages. But before all that long, you might well get an American culture a lot more similar to the way things were when the country was colonized by Europeans.

But what about the dragons and strange monsters that are a mainstay of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise? It's easy to imagine how that might arise. We simply need to imagine some genetic experimentation getting out of control. Imagine if a few decades from now biologists started to play around with making new species by gene-splicing. They might be right in the middle of that, when boom, society might collapse because of an energy crisis, an electromagnetic pulse, or a nuclear war. The weird creatures produced by the geneticists might then somehow get released into the world, and start reproducing. The world might then be overrun by various assorted species of monsters, some of which could even be like dragons (although it's hard to imagine any scenario by which you might end up with fire-breathing dragons). A nuclear war might also produce mutations that would lead to strange new species, some of which could be monstrous.

And why do we have to imagine that the “monsters” are all biological? We can imagine some types of runaway self-reproducing robots spreading across the land, with no more government around to stop them. Such robots might function just like various monsters out of the pages of Tolkien. What's the big difference between being threatened by giant spiders and being threatened by giant eight-legged robots that walk around like spiders?

You've got to admit, I'm starting to put together here an idea that some aspiring screenwriter might make into a great script. When a screenwriter is pitching a script, he always likes to have an “elevator pitch” he can use to sum up the idea in 20 seconds – for example, “My script is Titanic in outer space.” So here we have a nice potential elevator pitch: “My script is Lord of the Rings in a post-apocalyptic future.”

But what about the wizards that are a mainstay of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise? You might say: there's no possible way to get that in a human future. But that's not true. Let us simply remember Arthur C. Clarke's famous statement that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A person who applies advanced technology can easily seem like a wizard, as long as his observers have no idea what the technology is or how it is produced.

We can imagine a Tolkienesque future in which 99% of the human race knows nothing about science or technology. But there may be a handful of people who still know how to apply technology. Such rare technologists may start calling themselves magicians or wonder workers, to instill awe in the average human. They may start wearing robes and those big droopy wizard hats. To the average person, they would seem just exactly like magical wizards. But they would know they were not using magic, but simply using science and technology.

So it is all too possible that we might end up with a Tolkienesque “Hobbit” future with the aroma of “Middle Earth,” in which strange monsters (electronic or biological) roam the land, in which there are different flavors of the human race with different heights, in which people with swords ride around on horseback between quaint little villages, and in which astonishing wizards work wonders that seem like magic to almost everyone. But the golden magic ring? Forget about it; I can't think of any way to fit that into a possible future.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It's Hard to Explain “Radical Brain Plasticity” Under Our Current Paradigm

Neurologists think they have it figured out pretty well: your mind is purely a by-product of your brain; consciousness is like light produced by a light bulb, and the light bulb is the brain itself; particular parts of the brain are like particular parts of a computer; if one of those parts fails or is missing, your mind is crippled just as if someone yanked out some of the chips inside a computer. 

The problem is that there a good deal of evidence against such thinking. I've discussed some of these items before, but let's look at some new items that have been discussed in the news.

One interesting case recently reported was that of a woman who has no cerebellum. The cerebellum is known as the “little brain,” and is located near the middle of the brain. But in terms of the percentage of brain cells found in the cerebellum, it is misleading to say the cerebellum is the “little brain.” According to this scientific paper, the most recent estimates are that there are about 22 billion neurons in the cerebrum (the outer part of the brain), and 101 billion neurons in the cerebellum. So as the cerebellum has most of the brain's neurons, we might expect that this woman with no cerebellum was completely dysfunctional.

But actually, it turns out that the woman without a cerebellum merely suffered from mild mental retardation. She was able to walk and talk, and had even got married and had a daughter. How could that be: losing 80% of your brain neurons produces only mild mental retardation?

Another interesting case recently reported is that of an 88-year old man (identified as H.W.) who tested very well on a test of mental functioning, getting the maximum possible score of 30. But it was found that the man had no corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the main part of the brain that links the two brain hemispheres. As an article reports:

Given the importance of the callosum for connecting the bicameral brain, you’d think this would have had profound neuropsychological consequences for H.W. In fact, a detailed clinical interview revealed that he’d led a normal, independent life – first in the military and later as a flower delivery man. Until recently, if H.W.’s testimony is to be believed, he appeared to have suffered no significant psychological or neurological effects of his unusual brain...Brescian and her colleagues conducted comprehensive neuropsych tests on H.W. and on most he excelled or performed normally. This included IQ tests, abstract reasoning, naming tests, visual scanning, motor planning, visual attention and auditory perception.

The same article refers us to another case of a boy named E.B. who had surgery to remove almost the entire left half of his brain. But he underwent rehabilitation, and “EB's language fluency improved remarkably over the ensuing two to three years until no language problems at all were reported at school or in the family home.” Now how is that possible? If the light (consciousness and intelligence) is all coming from the 100-watt light bulb (the brain), how do you get almost 100 watts of light when you slice the light bulb in half?

Scientists have a kind of lame phrase to try to describe such things. They call it brain plasticity. Brain plasticity is supposed to kind of mean: if one part of the brain goes down, some other part will take over its work. It's basically a kind of non-explanation rather like saying: the brain can keep working pretty good even if you yank out most of its neurons. I guess now we're forced to accept a doctrine of “radical brain plasticity.”

But how can we explain such a thing? Through Darwinian natural selection, perhaps? I can imagine the explanation:

Through the blind process of natural selection, humans slowly developed radical brain plasticity, to help them survive and flourish during all those times about 30,000 years ago when many people were losing half of their brains because of brain surgery.

Oops, that doesn't quite work, does it? That's because about 30,000 years ago, when humans were shuffling around in caves, there was no brain surgery. It seems hard to explain the origin of “radical brain plasticity” giving any reasons relating to natural selection. From the standpoint of survival of the fittest, nature shouldn't care about about helping out the occasional person with a brain defect such as being born without a cerebellum. If Darwinian evolution has 100 healthy brains and 1 defective brain, in theory its attitude should just be: I don't care about the deficient brain – let the fittest survive and reproduce. That's the gist of natural selection – let the weak be damned, and let the strong flourish. So how exactly can we account for the origin of this “radical brain plasticity”?

It's very hard to explain such a thing under conventional ideas that the brain is the light bulb and consciousness is the light. Drastically different ideas may be needed, including some new brain/consciousness model that may be compatible with phenomena such as near-death experiences, a phenomenon quite incompatible with the brain/light-bulb model of consciousness. 


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My First Test of Spirit Photography Yields An Eerie Translucent Sphere

So let me tell the strange tale, without any embellishment, just after it happened.

My curiosity had been aroused by a recent post on the Atlantic web site, a post entitled “Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?” That story included a remarkable anecdote by the author Tiffanie Wen:

A few weeks later I discovered an image of a man in the background of a photo I took with my own iPhone. The picture was taken in my apartment and the man, whom I can’t identify, was not actually in the apartment at the time. I’ve been using the photo to scare my friends, and myself, ever since.

This story piqued my curiosity. I thought to myself: what if I try such a test myself? Is there any chance that if I take a few pictures myself around the apartment, that I might see something that might look like a ghost?

Having nothing better to do this afternoon, I decided to try the test – just for laughs. Now, of course, no real test of spirit photography is a first-class, full-fledged test unless it includes an invocation calling out to the spirit world, asking any nearby spirits to come forth. So, suppressing a giggle, I spoke aloud such an invocation, asking any benevolent spirits that could hear me to come forth and be photographed in my photos. It was about 1:30 PM on today, September 10, 2014.

The first few photos came up with nothing unusual. But then I saw something very strange in one of my photos. In the top right corner of the photo there was what looked like an eerie translucent sphere.

Below is the larger photo, slightly cropped. The sphere can be seen in the top middle part:

Here is a close-up of the sphere. Note that it is translucent. You can clearly see the border of my ceiling by looking through the sphere. As far as I can see, the object seems to be perfectly circular or spherical. 

ghost orb

I wondered: could this be some trick of light? I immediately took two other photos from the same angle, but neither of them showed anything like the translucent sphere. I draw no conclusion about this mysterious translucent sphere, and am glad to hear about any possible explanations, whether they be natural or supernatural.

Photographic anomalies such as this are often photographed by paranormal investigators, and are known as orbs. Those who debunk psychic phenomena sometimes say that these orbs are just caused by specks of dust. The claim is that when some paranormal investigator goes into some graveyard or some dusty old abandoned factory, particularly at night, there are specks of dust in the air that reflect the light of the flashbulb. Such reflections, skeptics claim, are misidentified as ghostly orbs.

But I can think of three reasons why such an explanation probably doesn't work in this case:

(1) My photo was taken during the day, not at night.
(2) If the object was a reflection of a random speck of dust, it would almost certainly be irregular, rather than the apparently perfect sphere in my photo.
(3) While I may not always follow “Good Housekeeping” standards of cleanliness, my apartment was clean at the time. There were no visible particles of dust in the air. In fact, I had been running an air filter for several hours, something I routinely run to help reduce the effects of urban air pollution. Such a filter should have minimized any small particles of dust in the air.

But despite these reasons, I draw no firm conclusion about this particular photo. I am open to any suggestions about the possible source of this eerie mysterious translucent orb. If you have any ideas, please forward them to me. 

Postscript:  Another possible natural explanation (which explains many "mysterious orbs" in photographs) is stray reflection, a case of the light from a flashbulb reflecting off of a reflective surface that is part of the photo. So, for example, an orb that appeared in front of a window can be naturally explained as just a reflection of the camera flash in the window. Similarly, the stray reflection hypothesis can explain an orb that appears in front of a television or framed photo. But in the case of this photo, that hypothesis isn't very plausible. The mysterious orb in my photo appears in front of a plaster surface. Plaster is not very reflective, and makes a very diffuse, "spread out" reflection, rather than something like a circle. Take a daylight flashbulb picture right in front of a plaster wall, and you won't see a nice even circle caused by a flashbulb reflection. Moreover, the surface in front of the orb in my photo was 20 feet away, and the nearby framed glass artwork shows no sign of any reflection. Furthermore, if the orb were a reflection, it would have to have reflected on two different surfaces at right angles to each other, and it's hard to see how you could have ended up with a seemingly perfect circle shape from such a reflection. These reasons do not totally rule out the possibility of some kind of weird optics or stray reflection going on, but they seem to make such a hypothesis appear farfetched. 

Post-postscript: I took about 40 "control" flash photos from the same spot I took the original photo. None of them showed any type of unusual shape, flare, or any type of orb, which casts additional doubt on the idea that the orb in my original photo was caused by a stray reflection.  I may also note that the picture in question was taken just after one picture which showed nothing like an orb, and just before another picture which showed nothing like an orb, which rules out the possibility of a lens smudge. I may also note that in the hour before taking the photo, I did not touch any curtains, handle any clothing, or do anything that might have raised dust into the air.  

I then tried an interesting test: a deliberate attempt to raise dust and photograph it with a flash camera, in an attempt to produce natural "orbs" in a photo.  I dragged a piece of laundry on the ground, and then whipped it on a chair, to raise dust into the air. When I took a flash photo, the photo had about 25 objects that looked like orbs. But these deliberate "orbs from dust" didn't look like the orb in my photo, because they were irregularly shaped, tended to have some color, were all much smaller (being golfball-sized rather than soccer-ball-sized), looked blurry, and were not fully translucent. Some examples are below.  The tests indicate that if you deliberately attempt to stir up dust in an indoor room, a flash bulb may produce orbs like the ones below, but that within 5 minutes the effect will go away, after the dust settles.

Post-post-postscript: In each of two subsequent photographs of my living room, I have seen one and only one additional circular orb, both appearing on the intersection of two walls or the intersection of the wall and ceiling (just as in the first one).  A coincidence, I suppose (although who knows). I may note that whenever you see exactly one orb in a photograph, it is perhaps hard to plausibly explain that as being due to dust or water vapor, because any photo test after deliberately creating dust or water vapor (such as shaking a dusty cloth or spraying a mist bottle) will produce either zero orb-like shapes or dozens of little orb-like shapes, not just one.  I will do further tests with additional electronic equipment, including a dust level detector. The author of this pdf (a physicist PhD) claims to see a deep significance in orbs, although quite a few others are more skeptical. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Questionable Task of Trying to Do Science With Computer Simulations

Scientific findings have usually been produced through two different ways. The first way is observation, such as when a biologist classifies some new deep-sea fish he photographed in an underwater expedition, or when an astronomer uses a telescope to get some new radiation readings from a distant galaxy. The second way is physical experimentation, such as when a chemist tries combining two chemicals, or when physicists try smashing together particles in a particle accelerator. But nowadays more and more scientists are trying to do science in a different way: by running computer simulations.

The idea is that a scientist can do a computer experiment rather similar to a physical experiment. A scientist might formulate a hypothesis, and then use (or write) some computer program that simulates physical reality. The scientist might get some results (in the form of computer output data) that can be used to test the validity of his hypothesis. Nowadays many millions of dollars are being spent on these computer simulations, often funded by taxpayer dollars.

But while this approach to doing science sounds reasonable enough in theory, there are some reasons for being skeptical about this particular approach to doing science. The first reason has to do with the computer programs that are used for doing these simulations. Such programs are very often not written according to industry standards, but are instead “cowboy-coded” affairs written mainly by one scientist who is kind of moonlighting as a programmer.

The difference between software written according to software industry “best practices” and “cowboy-coded” software is discussed here. Software written according to industry “best practices” typically involves a team of programmers and a team of quality assurance experts. “Cowboy-coded” software, to the contrary, is typically written mainly by a single programmer who often takes a “quick and dirty” approach, producing something with lots of details that only he understands. Once a computer program has been written in such a way, it is often what is called a “black box,” something that only the original programmer can understand fully. If the programmer has not documented the code very well, and the subject matter is very complex, it is often the case that even the original programmer no longer fully understands what is going on inside the program, given the passage of a few years.

Many of the programs used in scientific computer simulations are written by scientists who decided to take up programming. The problem with that is the art of writing bulletproof, reliable software is something that often takes a programmer many years to master, years of fulltime software development, often involving 60-hour or 70-hour weeks. There is no reason to be optimistic that such a subtle art would have been mastered by a scientist who does some part-time work at writing computer programs. I once downloaded a computer program being used nowadays as part of astronomical computer simulations. It was written in an amateurish style that violated several basic rules of writing reliable software. I can only imagine how many other scientific computer simulations are based on similar type of coding written by scientists doing computer programming.

This is not merely some purist objection. Even when software code is written according to industry “best practices” standards, such code almost always has errors. Code that is not written according to such standards will be likely to have many errors, and the result may be that such software simply gives the wrong answers when it produces outputs. Faulty software cannot be a basis for reliable scientific conclusions.

Another reason for skepticism is related to the fact that all computer programs designed to simulate physical reality require that a user select a variety of different inputs before running the computer program to simulate physical reality. It is never a simple matter of “just run the program and see what the results are.” Instead, it almost always works like this:

(1) Choose between 5 and 40 input arguments or model assumptions, in each case choosing a particular number from some range of possible values.
(2) Run the computer simulation.
(3) Interpret the results of the simulation outputs.

The problem is that Step 1 here gives abundant opportunities for experimental bias. A scientist who wants to run a computer simulation supporting hypothesis X may make all types of choices in Step 1 that he might not have made if he was not interested in supporting hypothesis X. Whenever you hear about a scientist running a computer simulation, remember: there are almost always a billion different ways to run any particular computer simulation. So when a scientist talks about “the results of running the simulation,” what he really should be saying is “the results of running the simulation using my set of input choices, which is only one of billions of possible sets of input choices.”

It seems almost as if many scientists who run these computer experiments try to hide the fact that they ran a computer program that allows billions of possible input choices, after choosing one particular set of input choices from billions of possibilities. The main way in which they seem to do such a thing is to not even discuss the input possibilities allowed by the computer program, and to not even list which choices they made for those input choices. This is, of course, a pathetic way of doing science. I saw an example of this in a recent scientific paper in which a scientist did some computer simulation using a publicly available program he named. The scientist did not bother to even specify in his paper what input parameters he chose for that program. The online documentation for the program makes clear that it takes many different input parameters.

Another reason why scientific computer simulations are doubtful is that there is ample opportunity for cherry-picking and biased interpretations when interpreting the results of a simulation. Very complicated computer simulations often produce ridiculous amounts of output data. A scientist might be able to make 10,000 different output graphs using that data, and he is free to choose whatever output graph will most look like a verification of whatever hypothesis he is trying to prove. He may ignore other possible output graphs that may look incompatible with such a hypothesis. 

Output of a typical computer cosmology simulation

Yet another reason why scientific computer simulations are doubtful is that it is often impractical or unrealistic to try to simulate a complicated physical reality in a computer program. If the thing being simulated is fairly simple, such as a particular set of chemical reactions, we might have a fairly high degree of confidence that the programmer has managed to capture physical reality pretty well in his computer program. But the more complicated the physical reality, and the greater the number of particles and forces involved, the less confidence we should have that the insanely complicated physical reality has been adequately captured in mere computer code. For example, we should be very skeptical that any computer program in existence is able to simulate very accurately things such as the dynamics or origin of galaxies.

Still another reason why scientific computer simulations are doubtful is that those who run such simulations typically fail completely to follow “blindness” methodology followed in other sciences. When testing new drugs, scientists follow a “double blind” methodology. For example, the person dispensing a drug to patients may be kept in the dark as to whether he is dispensing the real drug or a “sugar pill” placebo. Then the person collecting the results data or interpeting it may also be kept in the dark as to whether he is dealing with the real drug or a placebo. Scientists running a scientific computer simulation could follow similar policies, but they almost never do. For example, when running a scientific computer simulation the choice of input parameters and interpretation of the outputs could be made by some scientist who does not know which hypothesis is being tested, or who has no interest in whether the results confirm that hypothesis. But it is rare for any such “blindness” techniques to be followed when doing scientific computer simulations.

But despite their dubious validity, scientific computer simulations will continue to gather a great of deal of scientists' time, while chewing up many a tax dollar. One reason is that they can be a lot of fun to create and run. Imagine if you create a computer program simulating the origin and evolution of the entire universe. The scientific worth of the program may be very questionable, but scientists may have a blind eye to that when they are having so much fun playing God on their supercomputers. 

Postscript:  I am not suggesting here that scientific-related computer simulations are entirely worthless. I am merely suggesting that such simulations are a "distant second" to science produced through observations and physical experiments. Also, the points made here do not undermine the case for global warming, as that case relies not mainly on computer simulations, but also on many direct observations, such as observations of increased carbon dioxide levels, and observations of increasing temperatures.