Monday, December 31, 2007

My brain on Nietzsche

The spate of low-level panic induced by reading Flowers for Algernon prompted me to spend a lot of time thinking about how my brain works: the good, the bad, and the irritating. After some cogitation, I've got a new model to play with. In this model, my mind is analogous to a boardroom at some large bureaucratic company.

Bear with me.

The reason I'm going off down this highway of thought is one of the most enduring flaws I see within myself: a serious lack of self-discipline. I've never been good at telling myself to jump through hoops. I need to see the cheese before I can bring myself to run the maze. The annoying thing is that, once I'm up against a deadline, I'm really rather effective - at GCSE* in particular I pulled some extremely good results out of a very small bag of revision.

Of course, then I went to Cambridge Uni, which demanded a less deadline-oriented approach to education, and I crashed and burned messily**. So I'm keen to figure out precisely what is going on in my brain.

It's well-known that neural networks operate by a process known as "pandemonium", whereby a bunch of different subnetworks all "yell" loudly, and the loudest one gets listened to. The behaviour of my brain is going to be heavily based on the different subnetworks that are competing for head-room - its cast of characters, if you will. Enter stage left.

The first character is a workmanlike kinda guy, wearing jeans with patches on the knees and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Don't assume that he's a slacker, though; this individual is a creature of pure drive and motivation. He's the part of me that takes over at the end of a long weekend, when I'm in a good mood and get this inexplicably strong desire to tidy my room or lift some weights. I think of him as the Uebermensch - he's the man with the plan, and if he was in charge of me the whole time then the sky would be the limit.

The rest of the characters all have their own individual traits, but I'm going to refer to them by their collective name: the bureaucrats. Most of the time, they're snooty about the Uebermensch - what's this poorly-dressed peon doing invading their boardroom? How dare he! If you want another metaphor, think of the stereotypical pompous arts professor, astounded that anyone would dare challenge the obvious rightness of his opinions about everything. The bureaucrats are the parts of me that bicker and play politics and laze about. When the bureaucrats are out in strength, the Uebermensch doesn't have a chance - his voice can't be heard over the ruckus. That's what happens when I start procrastinating and realise that three hours have vanished.

Of course, the situation all changes when there's something on the line. The stereotypical arts professor, regardless of his social constructivist philosophy, wouldn't want to get in a plane that hadn't been designed by a qualified mechanic. Similarly, when trouble looms, the bureaucrats don't hesitate to hand over the reins to the one guy in their midst who's actually good at achieving things. They go and hide and let the Uebermensch get on with it.

I'm being a bit hard on the bureaucrats here; they're not all bad. In fact, it's probably one of them that's dominant within me as I write this. But they're not good at doing stuff. They're only good at talking about it. That's why I'm sitting here typing rather than doing one of the hundred jobs that are clearly visible on all sides of me.

If this model is accurate, what should I be trying to achieve? I need to feed the Uebermensch, to make him big and strong so that he can hold his own against the orgiastic laziness of the other characters. I need to figure out how to make the Uebermensch appear more frequently. I need to figure out how to make him stay longer once he's out of his cage***.

Observations so far:

1) the Uebermensch comes out most often when I'm well-rested - by his nature, he's more prone to tiredness than the bureaucrats.
2) intellectual activity is actually bad for the Uebermensch - in particular, I'm doing him no favours by blogging.
3) the presence of people tends to act as a disruptor - it's more likely that the Uebermensch will become dominant, but more likely that he'll fall from grace again.

Hopefully I can put together some sort of strategy for boosting my effectiveness based on this. Fingers crossed.

* For you USians, I think this is equivalent to end of high school.

** By which I mean I got a 2:2. Not burned so much as mildly scorched, but I'm convinced I had the potential to get at least a 2:1.

*** In one of my rare nods to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the book that started me blogging in the first place, I would equate this with what Pirsig refers to as "gumption". When you've got gumption on your side - when the Uebermensch is loose - stuff just starts to happen.
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The Horror!

Edgar Allen Poe? A rank amateur. HP Lovecraft? A purple-prose poseur. Mary Shelley? Bram Stoker? Cheesy hacks, the lot of them.

If you want a real horror story, try Daniel Keyes.

Flowers for Algernon is a story about a guy with IQ 70 - barely functional - who is experimented on to increase his intelligence. Soon he's at IQ 180, soaking up the world's knowledge like a very smart sponge. In particular, he learns everything there is to know about the experiment that was performed on him. And he learns that the experiment's premise was fatally flawed. In a very short time, his new-found genius is going to dissolve like a snowflake under a blowtorch. He's going to lose it all.

The book tracks his slow deterioration down through normal levels of intelligence, getting less and less coherent as his brain decays. By the time the story is finished, the person he had briefly become has evaporated. I swear, this story had me up half the frickin' night with nervous insomnia.

My mind is what makes me who I am. The thought of losing that freaks me out on a level so basic it's hard to describe*. If I ever contract Alzheimers and degenerate to the point where I cease to be me, someone please shoot me. I don't want to think of myself continuing like that, as a soul without a mind.

* Obligatory religion tie-in: I feel the same about the thought that I might have a road-to-Damascus experience and spontaneously convert. If that happened, if I accepted religion on any other grounds than solid evidence, I wouldn't be me any more.

When people say "just pray to God and he'll change your heart", they seem to have this strange idea that that would be a good thing. I consider this to be painfully wrong.
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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The art of not listening

Families, huh? I've known plutonium that was less reactionary.

We just had the usual Christmas row, where my mum orders my sister (who is 18 going on 30) to do the thank-you letters, my sister gets irritated at being ordered around, my mum misinterprets the irritation as bone-idleness, and it all spirals down from there.

This is probably a not insignificant part of why I try to be cold-blooded in my decisions: because I've seen the merry hell that an emotion-driven approach to life can wreak.
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New laptop

I just got my new laptop through in the mail. I heard that Dell was retailing laptops with Ubuntu preinstalled, so I thought I'd give it a try. Here's a brief review.


I went for the absolute minimum on all hardware options, and it doesn't seem to have done me any harm. The system is very fast and responsive. The keyboard is nice and clicky. The touchpad is a pain in the ass cos I keep banging into it, but that's true of every laptop I've ever used.

One concern I have is that I think one of my speakers just spontaneously blew out while I was writing this. I'm hoping it's just a glitch that'll correct itself.


Ubuntu is - as always - a very nice system. The only problem I've had so far is wireless connectivity. My family's ActionTec router has an odd feature: as well as entering the WEP hex key, you have to enter a key number from 1 to 4. This is not supported in the Ubuntu user interface. There's apparently some way to make it work via command-line wizardry, but I'd really rather not.

Fortunately, apparently all I need to do is set the key number on the router to 1. Unfortunately, this has given my dad, who is a Windows geek, an opportunity to be irritatingly smug.

One slight tweak that would have been nice would be if the good folks at Dell had configured the regional information before sending it to me. I had to choose timezone and keyboard layout. This wasn't a problem for me, but someone who didn't know what the different keyboard layouts were might have had trouble. Also, Firefox's spell-checker was set to German for some reason.


Generally a nice system, and fully useable for normal people. This is a laptop that your granny can use, if you spend a whole 5 minutes setting it up for her. And she'll probably enjoy the selection of simple games, too.

A couple of annoying niggles, but nothing life-threatening (apart from the possible speaker failure, which I'm willing to chalk up to bad luck). I hereby give this system an initial mark of 7 out of 10. Not bad for a bottom-of-the-range gizmo like this.
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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lovely gesture

I just got a CD through the post. David, the guy running the local Humanist group, routinely records and writes up the meeting notes. Once he'd done that for the meeting I attended, he sent me the recording as a souvenir of my brief tenure as chairperson.

That is just so sweet!
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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tat Thoughts cont.

The discussion on this thread is getting hard to read because of its length (most of which is my fault). I'm creating this post to make things more readable. See the comments section for my response to Terri's last post.

When I have a moment I might break each of the key issues out into its own post, which will make keeping track of the lines of argument infinitely easier.
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Monday, December 10, 2007

Humanists ahoy!

I finally got round to checking out the local Humanist group yesterday (Sunday). It was an interesting experience. This is only a short write-up as I'm on lunchbreak at the moment and don't have much time left.

For those who haven't come across it before, humanism is an atheistic/agnostic belief system. I haven't come across any humanist credos that I can recall, but their party line could be summed up as "morality without credulity". In the UK, this belief system is represented by the British Humanist Association, with whom the Berkshire Humanists (who I visited) are very loosely affiliated.

On the good side, the group was lovely - very friendly and considerate. The topic of conversation was interesting to me: we discussed the pagan origins of Christmas traditions (short version: if a Christian ever says Christmas is being co-opted as a secular holiday, feel free to laugh loudly). And they cheerfully encouraged me to chair the meeting, which I enjoyed to a quite unhealthy degree. Also, homemade mince pies.

There were a few bad points. Most obvious was that the average age was roughly 60. This wasn't a problem for me - I like talking to elderly people - but it would put off most people my age. Secondly, the group isn't really big enough to be strongly self-sustaining - only 12 attendees. You may have noticed that in most churches the management committee is a small cabal that quietly deals with all the admin? Well, in this group the committee is everyone, so a big chunk of the meeting was taken up with discussion of these rather tedious administrative issues.

Or, alternatively, the management committee was one person, a guy called David who seems to do most of the admin tasks singlehandedly. A very dedicated individual. However, he was also the single biggest problem I had as chairperson: he insisted on going into excessive detail on the committees he was involved with and the tasks he was undertaking. Completely overran the time limit, and he was so clearly pouring his heart and soul into it that it was hard to ask him to cut short.

If I were to continue going to this, I would feel a very strong urge to start to make changes. The group clearly has momentum - it's been going for decades - but it could use a friendly shakeup. Key points would be:

1) Get all David's information on committees, websites, etc into a structured format. The guy deserves to have his say, but in the meeting it would be far more effective to just reel off a list of headlines and ask that people review a handout for further info.

2) Make a clear break between the management/admin team and the ordinary members. Work on the principle that the members probably would prefer as little dry information as possible, with the caveats that a) the info should be accessible if they want it, and b) the admin team should work to "upgrade" existing members*.

3) Split into smaller groups during the discussion period. I wish I'd suggested this at the time, because I could see that a couple of the quieter members were getting left out in the cold. Humanism seems to attract people with strong personalities.

4) Resist the urge to computerise everything - it leaves the older members out in the cold. With such a high average age, and correspondingly low average degree of computer experience, the internet is mainly useful as an organisational principle and an advertising tool, not as a way of communicating en masse with members.

5) Look less at joining various committees and more at advertising to the general public. For example, I was hooked by a poster in the local library. Encourage David to think in those terms. Maybe I should pass him the link to this site.

* I'm suddenly getting flashbacks to the Loyalty Ladder that we were taught about in my OU training course. Damn, I hadn't realised that stuff had sunk in so well!
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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Limits of reason

Consider inductive reasoning (or falsificationism or whatever). Broadly speaking, this operates off the principle that assuming the universe has uniformity can't do any harm, and may do some good.

There's a pathological case where this isn't true: where the universe is actively trying to make your life difficult. In that situation, the uniformity assumption is a death-trap. Just imagine trying to win a poker game by rigorous experimentation - you'd get 0wned.

The human brain has access to a different kind of rationality designed to handle these cases. It's a rationality aimed at (to quote Neal Stephenson) condensing fact from the vapour of nuance. It uses rules like "once accident, twice coincidence, three times enemy action". It's not rational in the usual sense - but, insofar as rationality is ultimately pragmatic, it has an equal claim to the title.

So in a sense you could say that conspiracy theorists aren't really irrational - they're just jumping the gun slightly by engaging this secondary mode of rationality before they know there's something there to be investigated. The problem is, of course, that once it's been engaged it can't be turned off. When later tests come back negative, that just means your enemy is even smarter than you thought.
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Monday, December 03, 2007

Tat thoughts

I'm pondering getting a tattoo. In fact, there are only two reasons I haven't done so yet. The first is cultural: I'm effectively a yuppie, and the yuppie class in England tends to look down on tattoos. I personally don't hold this opinion, but would I find myself in awkward situations with my peers?

The second reason is metaphysical: I'm not sure what tattoo to get. I feel like, if I start getting needled, my tat(s) should have some sort of theme to them. For example, in Robin Hobb's "Liveship Traders" trilogy, one of the characters gets a tattoo each time he has had insanely good luck. In XMen 2, one of the characters gets a tattoo for every sin. My guiding philosophy is an obsession with reality, so my approach to tats should probably reflect this.

The problem I have is that, as a reality-obsessive, any conclusion I draw about reality would be purely provisional. In other words, it's possible that I'd change my stance later - in which case I'd have to get the tattoo erased. So how about this for an idea: I get a tattoo only when I'm confident enough about my stance that I am willing to take the risk of erasure? Then, when someone asks me how sure I really am about X, I can say "this sure" and point to the symbol of X tattooed on my skin.

This would have an additional psychological benefit. One of the biggest problems that I have is a tendency to revisit old intellectual stomping grounds long after I should have just let the subject drop. If I am truly confident enough to get a tattoo, that will serve as a constant reminder that, absent any major new discoveries, I've done my due diligence and can quit wasting my valuable time.

At this point in my life, I hold two positions that fit the bill perfectly. The first is atheism, for which I would tend to go for the symbol described here (because I'm a maths geek and I love it). The second is evolutionary biology. I'm not entirely sure what to use for this - possibly the Darwin fish?

As an aside, I'd note that any theists or creationists who feel they have a solid reason for belief in God should speak now or forever hold their peace. After I get these tats, Mr Evangelism Target will have left the building.
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