Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The exponential growth of technology

I liked The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. (He invented the first decent digital piano and the first decent voice recognition software.) But the best part of the book by far was the graphs. I just found that they are all online, so I thought I would share them with you.
The first few are gimmicky and not much use, but the others are practical. For example, I want to pay one cent per gigabyte of hard disk space. How long do I need to wait? (Answer: five years.) Or, I want a computer that can accurately simulate every neuron in the human brain on my desktop. How long do I have to wait? (Answer: about 20 years.)
Also interesting is the drop in U.S. war deaths, and the increase in resolution of non-invasive brain imaging.
Be sure to keep in mind that these are log plots, so a straight line is really an exponential curve.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Ancient RPGs

I was thinking again about ancient roleplaying games. There were dice games(Mjollnir, for example) and miniatures wargames (chess variants) and improvisational theather (Harlequin stories). One other possibility I thought of was divination. (Divination with dice is called cleromancy.) Like RPGs, someone could determine what was going to happen next in any context by rolling dice. The dungeon master, at least, realized that the game was fictional! It suggests alternate gameplay mechanics, such as reading entrails to determine saving throws, or using the lines on your palm as a kind of character sheet.
I liked the sound of the names and the arbitrariness of the categories in this list from Wikipedia:

astrology: by celestial bodies.
augury: by the flight of birds.
bibliomancy: by books (frequently, but not always, religious texts).
cartomancy: by cards.
cheiromancy/palmistry: by palms.
chronomancy: about time, lucky/unlucky days.
cybermancy: by computers.
gastromancy: by crystal ball.
extispicy: by the entrails of animals.
feng Shui: by earthen harmony.
I Ching divination: by the I Ching; a form of bibliomancy.
numerology: by numbers.
oneiromancy: by dreams.
onomancy: by names.
Ouija: board divination.
rhabdomancy: by rods
runecasting/Runic divination: by runes.
scrying: by reflective objects.
taromancy: a form of cartomancy using tarot cards.
necromancy: by the dead, or spirits/souls of the dead/recently dead

I've actually used bibliomancy, cartomancy and cybermancy as randomizers in RPGs before. The image above is an Eskimo chess variant.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Ethics and evolution

In my opinion, the historical facts about how the forms of life appeared on the earth are as science presents them. There was a gradual change over time in the nature of individual species, and new species appeared as the descendants of previous ones. I think the influence of God on the process was of the same sort as God's influence on history or on our individual lives: pervasive, significant, but very, very subtle. The same events can have more than one cause, but the events themselves are more or less how scientists have determined them to be.


This does not give evolutionary theorists any reasonable claim to be ethical advisors to the rest of us. In the case of a few outspoken authors, I have found their understanding of religion and their ethical positions careless, one-sided, and sometimes dangerously wrong. They show an inability to think critically about these issues that makes all of their reasoning suspect. For example, consider the following passage by Richard Dawkins. He is outlining a line of research he thinks will be followed over the next fifty years and is on the whole in favor of:
"By the time the LGP (Lucy Genome Project) has been completed, embryology should have advanced to the point where the reconstructed genome could be inserted into a human egg and implanted in a woman, and a new Lucy born into the light of today. This will doubtless raise ethical worries.
Though concerned for the happiness of the individual australopithecine reconstructed (this is at least a coherent ethical issue, unlike fatuous worries about "playing God"), I can see positive ethical benefits, as well as scientific ones, emerging from the experiment..."
He then goes on to outline over several pages the benefits he sees coming out of it.
This kind of thinking is, in a literal sense, monstrous. The violation of the dignity of the woman involved in the experiment, the horrific consequences for the child (purposely mentally retarding and disfiguring a child?), the consequences for a society so ethically deranged it would permit such awful experimentation are simply incredible. He has passed all human feeling on this kind of issue. It legitimately raises the question of whether such thinking is the natural end of a belief in evolution and whether any person still capable of moral repugnance would choose to pursue that line of thinking if it leads to such a terrible end.
C.S. Lewis warned about this in The Abolition of Man. When we are capable of changing what it means to be human, we are in serious danger of losing our own humanity.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Intelligent Design

I'm getting emails from people about the new movie "Expelled", which advocates Intelligent Design, a particular approach to God's role in the creation of life. My own view is a little different than that. My own view is usually called directed evolution.
Evolution advocates think that this idea is useless, that the whole point of natural selection is you can have what looks like intelligent matching of form to environment without intelligent guidance. They like the idea that it can all be handled without outside interference.
For Christians, it's a different story. For Christians, God has a hand in everything, in daily lives, in history, in the formation of the solar system. Even though there are natural explanations for people's behavior that we all understand perfectly well, that doesn't change the fact that somehow it is also caused and fully shaped by God. So to claim that evolution is somehow different from that seems silly. Everything has physical causes. That doesn't prevent it from also being caused by God's purposes at the same time.
For example, if you look at cancer death rates in Utah, they're about half the national average. If you subtract out the effects of smoking, alcohol, and exercise from helping people move, those rates probably drop down to something close to the national average. So the extra number of times that God steps in in Utah and causes a cancer to disappear in a way that the doctors shake their heads about in a way that will get written up in the Ensign can statistically be measured to be rather small. But that's beside the point: the lives saved from not smoking and not drinking are also due to God's influence. Plus the lives across the country of everyone else who doesn't die of cancer. It's all a miracle, all the time.
Mormons usually believe God was once like us, and looked like us, and later became deified. So if he already had a body, there must have already been everything necessary to support it: ecology, chemistry, physics, the works.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Book idea

Someone should write a crossover novel between H.P. Lovecraft and Transformers, set in Antartica where two ancient evils are discovered frozen in the ice. They could call it The Deceptinomicon.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Continuation of a theme

Eliza and Consciousness

Joseph Weizenbaum just passed away. He was the author of Eliza, the psychotherapist program that echoes the users own thoughts:

USER: I feel listless and unsettled.
ELIZA: Why do you think you feel listless and unsettled?

Weizenbaum was horrified to realize that some people were actually taken in by such a simple trick, so much so that some of them would spend hours "conversing" with the machine. He realized that the idea of a Turing test was fatally flawed. We don't have some magical ability to sense when something else is conscious and when it is just a trick designed to make us think it is. As a matter of fact, we're pretty easy to fool.

It's easy to see that we can design two systems with the same behavior, one of which has qualia as part of the process and the other which clearly doesn't.
First, put a man in a box and tell him when he sees green to push the button marked "green" which makes a dial point to the word "green," and the button marked "red" when he sees red.
Next, make a system that has the same effect using a photocell and a switch. This is clearly too simple of a system to have qualia (anyone who claimed that it did would soon be forced to admit that every blade of grass, every atom, has the same level of functionality and is just as "conscious," which is an absurd position.) Yet it behaves the same as the other system which does have the experience of qualia as one of the steps. From outside the box, there's no way to tell which is which.
Despite this inability to tell the difference, we have a different moral obligation to the man in the box, who is capable of being hurt, than we do toward the gadget. Turing's position was that because we can't tell the difference, we ought to treat both boxes as if they were humans. But this is only the case if we really can't look inside the boxes.
We don't know how consciousness happens in the human mind. All we know is that it does happen. It doesn't matter so much what the information flow is as how it is carried out: does it go through a system that experiences qualia as it processes information, or not? It's a fantasy of computer scientists to think that by making something that imitates people's behavior, that it will by some magic turn from something that doesn't have subjective awareness into something that does.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Person 1: Bill Watterson Hofstadtered comics. He's a regular Hofstadterer.
Person 2: Well, Calvin and Hobbes is a very Hofstadter comic. But I think xkcd is even Hofstadterer.

Person 1: This magician can create an illusion that makes someone look more like David Bruderer!
Person 2: So he makes them look Brudererer, huh?
Person 1: Yes, that's what he does. He's a Bruderererer.
Person 2: Boy, you could keep adding new -er suffixes all day.
Person 1: Actually, that's my job. I'm a Brudererererer.